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Nearly a century after they first appeared as serialized strips in U.S. newspapers, comics are coming of age.

No longer relegated to the basement or stacked under little boys’ beds, successors to the “funnies” have found a place in the classroom, the Evanston Public Library – and the prestigious New York Times Book Review.

So it is not surprising that 200-300 people showed up May 2 at Comix Revolution, 606 Davis St., for giveaways on Free Comic Book Day. By day’s end, owner Jim Mortenson had handed out 2,000 of the books. Publishers provide comics to dealers like him at reduced prices for the national event, using the day “to kick off a new line or showcase talent,” he says.

A few blocks away the Evanston Public Library was giving out free comics donated by Mr. Mortenson. They ran out.

In 1939 the first comic book, “Superman #1,” sold a million copies, says Mr. Mortenson. In their American heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, while movies were providing only “weak special effects,” and video games that let the player “become the hero” were decades away, comics created “heroics,” he says.

Today “most comics sell 100,000 [copies] or less,” he says. Despite a cadre of “hard-core,” regular customers – typically male and aged 25-40 – who come into his store on Wednesdays to pick up new releases, Mr. Mortenson says he doubts any comic will outsell the original “Superman.”

But in the eight and a half years since he opened the Evanston store, Mr. Mortenson says he has witnessed “an explosion of graphic novels.” In 1996 there were 12-15 Batman graphic novels, he says. Now there are 150-200.

Some graphic novels form a “cohesive whole,” says Mr. Mortenson. Others are compilations of serialized comics, which he compares to boxed sets of DVDs of a TV series – or to novels first written in installments for 19th-century magazines.

Mr. Mortenson calls the Watchmen series “the high-water mark” for serial comics. Author Alan Moore, he says, used the “art form” of comics as a “critique of the art form and popular culture [of the 1980s].”

While he says the series’ several levels of meaning did not come across in the recent movie version, other film adaptations have been more successful. In the past ten years, says Mr. Mortenson, Hollywood has seized the chance to build on comics’ “better new ideas” and “visceral, cutting-edge stories” and to lure their “tried and true audience” to the big screen.

Comics loom large in 21st-century movie culture. Disney’s Pixar Studios 3-D movie “Up” made history earlier this month when it became the first animated film ever chosen to open the Cannes Movie Festival.

This year’s Academy Award for best supporting actor went to the late Heath Ledger for his sinister role in “The Dark Knight,” one of the comics-based box-office mega-hits of the last 10 to 15 years. “Iron Man,” starring Robert Downey Jr. was nominated in several categories. Hoping to join their ranks are upcoming releases such as “Astro Boy” and “Kick-Ass.”

For years Americans stigmatized comics as a lower form of literature – as “simple, base and common” as jazz music was in its youth, says Mr. Mortenson. The Belgians, French and Italians regard hardback comics as adult fare, and Japanese manga offer something for everyone. But in the United States, the birthplace of comics, they have been considered suitable only for children – or, says EPL librarian Christine Chandler-Stahl, “reluctant readers.”

Comics and graphic novels appeal to a wide range of reading tastes and are “a great way to draw in male readers,” says Ms. Chandler-Stahl.

Long hoarded as guilty pleasures, comics gained new literary status in March when New York Times bestseller lists for hardcover and soft cover graphic novels and Japanese mangas – one list each – debuted online.

That higher status is well deserved, says Mr. Mortenson. “Comics have continued to develop,” he says. “Now their content is so high it’s a real, artistic art form.”

One aficionado says that with pictures and words working together to constitute the narrative, the graphic novel is a transitional form between novel and film.

Calling graphic novels “a huge hit” in the Teen Loft at the EPL, Ms. Chandler-Stahl adds that they are winning “mainstream awards.” The Michael Printz Award, young adult literature’s highest accolade, she says, went to “American-Born Chinese,” a coming-of-age story about a teen boy in San Francisco.

Graphic novels for teens run the gamut from horror to romance to myth. “What’s not to like about them?” Ms. Chandler-Stahl asks. Given the history of drop-off in reading in the early teen years, she says, graphic novels are “a great addition and a magnet.”

She says she “applaud[s] teachers who have incorporated [graphic novels into the curriculum].” They have found that in writing or reading them, “different students excelled,” she says.

Mr. Mortenson has a catalog of reasons to read graphic novels. Cheaper to produce than action movies, he says they tend to be more creative. He sees value in the fact that they represent “pure artistic expression by a single person,” he says, while “any other visual sequential medium is collaborative.”

In these condensed stories, he says, “Pictures convey what words would say. If the artist is talented enough … the visuals speak.”

He sums up comics’ worth: “If someone writes a story, it’s art. If someone draws a picture, it’s art. If someone draws a picture and tells a story, it’s art.”