By Chris Nashawaty
September 09, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Used to be that a person past the age of 15 would eat dirt before admitting to a fondness for superhero comics. Now, people well into their 20s openly haunt the comic stores found near any college campus worth its weight in Kryptonite. In these dusty enclaves, slackers can peruse such successful alternative titles as Vamps, Concrete, and Sandman. ”Straight-ahead superheroes definitely aren’t in,” says Matt Gold, assistant manager of Newbury Comics on the campus of M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass. ”They’re being replaced by these really well- drawn, postapocalyptic, morally ambiguous superheroes. ”

For the truly edgy, however, even mutant crusaders are too slick. For these rebels, there are the ”real-life” sleazoid worlds of Peter Bagge’s Hate (populated by low-rent grungesters), Daniel Clowes’ Eightball (part Twin Peaks, part Mad magazine on acid), Michael Dougan’s graphic novel I Can’t Tell You Anything (sporting a homicidal rooster and a cheesy playboy), and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. The last, a growing campus favorite, focuses on the phobias of twentysomething life. Tomine should know: The 20-year-old artist is a junior at UC Berkeley. Started four years ago as three pages of stapled- together paper, it now sells 6,000 copies per issue. For Tomine, early success just equals more neurosis for his strip. ”I don’t think anyone our age can escape the fear of selling out,” he says. ”But let’s be honest: Comics aren’t rock music. I’m not going to be a rock star. I’ll still be the same nerd who sits at my drawing table on Friday nights.”