"There's a heightened interest in comics as a literary medium," says Griepp. Along with his own praise for The Sandman, he points to Art Spiegelman's Maus, the Holocaust story in comic book form that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. And here's an irony: As more complicated characters and mature themes have come to dominate the market, scores of titles once aimed at kids - romance, Westerns, funny animal stories - have vanished. Superhero comics rule, and superhero comics are largely an adult genre. As one measure of how the scene has changed, Art Spiegelman told an interviewer that his recent title, Little Lit, is an attempt to show that "comic books are not just for grownups anymore."

"Sometimes I worry that comics just can't handle the weight of all the metaphor and allegory," says author Tom Spurgeon. "Sometimes we just want a hero to be a hero, get in a fistfight, and have exciting adventures. We don't always need the psychological underpinnings, or a visual reference to the Kabbalah."

Milton Griepp notes that the shift to an older, more sophisticated audience parallels another change in the comics world: the rise of graphic novels. According to ICv2.com, readers spent $100 million on graphic novels in 2002, followed by at least a 30 percent increase in 2003 to $130 million. If current trends continue, Griepp says, graphic novels will outsell traditional periodical comics in a few years.

Many graphic novels are sold in large chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books & Music, convenient for adult readers who may not haunt harder-to-find specialty comics shops. These trade paperbacks and hardbacks, handsomely illustrated and printed on high-quality paper, range in price from $10 to $25 - a long way from allowance money. And because they contain an entire story arc, graphic novels are perfect for older readers who want to read a complete story front to back, rather than trek out monthly for a periodical.