In the last 25 years or so, the comic-book industry has undergone a mutation worthy of the X-Men. Once unapologetic time wasters for preteen boys (and the occasional girl), comics — excuse me, graphic novels — have grown heavy with meaning, increasingly catering to sophisticated twenty-somethings and a loyal bunch of collectors. Cyberspace, meanwhile, has seen the opposite happen in its much abbreviated history: Commercial online services like America Online and Web browsers like Netscape have become so easy to use that first graders flock to them the way their ’50s counterparts used to roller-skate to newsstands for the latest issue of Action Comics.

That, in a word balloon, is why online comics — which have proliferated faster than variants of Batman‘s 50th-anniversary issue — may have to struggle a while to establish an identity. A look at four new offerings — Zombie Detective, Spider-Man Cyber Comic, Cyberforce, and The Startle Pattern — reveals a medium still defining itself and, not incidentally, grappling with the question of how to transform static picture panels into an engaging interactive experience.

The most successful is Zombie Detective, a pulpy daily serial chronicling the adventures of a private dick on an island of the undead. While Detective is strictly PG fare — its most unsettling element is a pulsing, ominous soundtrack — it manages to hold the average surfer’s attention, if only because it’s so expertly tied to other activities. There’s little animation, only a series of bold headlines and smallish, well-drawn panels (about a dozen per day) that you click through sequentially, occasionally taking a detour to the Zombie Times (a clever newspaper parody) or the Zombie Cafe (where readers exchange observations and story ideas). The strip’s savvy creators even offer a Zombie Maul, where fans can order merch.

While Zombie Detective is generic enough to appeal to all ages, young kids appear to be the primary target of Spiderman Cyber Comic. This strip, however, might test their attention spans — using a 28.8 modem, you’ll need a full five minutes to download each weekly episode, as long as it’ll take grade- schoolers to plow through the installments. About the best that can be said of Spiderman is that it’s almost exactly like the comic book — Spidey is smart-alecky (”It’s impolite to talk with your mouth full of webbing!”), and the artwork is as bright as a kid’s breakfast cereal. Plus, the online version offers neat sound effects — a speaker-rattling roar accompanies the hero’s ride on a dino — and random stabs at audience participation, whereby the occasional villain is dedicated, like a song on pop radio, to someone’s AOL moniker.

Compared with these mainstream online offerings — both currently available only for AOL subscribers using PCs — Net-based comics are a dicier lot. Cyberforce, based on the indie comic book from Top Cow, is more a game than a graphic novel — a text description accompanies each panel of fetishistic android artwork, prompting visitors to collect various objects. The effect can be mildly involving, but slow loading times and a lack of plot development ultimately leave you feeling as lifeless as a cybernetic bucket of bolts.

The Startle Pattern is even more disappointing, considering cocreator John Moynihan’s contribution to MTV’s Liquid TV (he directed Brad Dharma: Psychedelic Detective; he’s also the son of Sen. Daniel Moynihan of New York). This slow, noninteractive, one-panel-at-a-time strip deals with the travails of Ann Elise Hummingbird, a data processor at the Ministry of Obfuscation. Pattern seems aimed squarely at jaded Gen-Xers, but Moynihan’s cause is undermined by the ever-changing corporate sponsor’s logo atop each page, as well as by some pretentious dialogue (”Ad hades cum sapienta,” yells one character as he blows people to smithereens — yeah, same to you, buddy). Anyone for Superman? Zombie: B+ Spiderman: B- Cyberforce: C Startle Pattern: C-