Before there was Bart or even Mickey, the newspapers were full of stories about a brick-heaving mouse named Ignatz and his unrequited lover, Krazy, a flat-footed, Nixon-nosed, Yiddish-accented feline with the soul of a poet. George Herriman's Krazy Kat usually showed up in four-panel daily comic strips, or galumphed through a full-page format on Sundays. Rarely did Krazy go through an extended adventure but it happened in 1936, when Herriman spun out an eight-week-long fable about the effects of a high-powered catnip. You can find the whole glorious shebang included in this year's edition of Raw, the paperback annual of cartoons for grown-ups (also suitable for children with depraved tastes). If you are familiar with Raw, no more need be said. If you aren't, let me use Krazy's words to describe it. It is ''a polo bear in a skwoil cage...a poiminint tidal wave in a notion of dynamite.''
On a more mundane note: This year's Raw consists of 25 wildly varied items, selected by editors Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, ranging geographically from San Francisco to Zaire and chronologically from the present back to 1852. Representing the latter, and the history of comics in general, is the French master Gustave Doré (1832-83), who chronicles the life of a cartoonist from schoolyard to debtors' prison. Turning the caricaturist himself into a caricature, Doré asks the question implicit in many of Raw's best pieces: Is the cartoonist merely a failed artist or a full-scale public nuisance?
In their novella-length piece, ''The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,'' Kim and Simon Deitch approach the question directly, telling the story of a drunken, deluded cartoon animator during the era of Felix the Cat and Betty Boop. R. Sikoryak also takes up the theme in ''Garish Feline I-VI,'' which shows you what a Garfield strip might look like if drawn by Willem de Kooning. But my favorite investigation into the allure of comics my favorite piece in this year's Raw is Chris Ware's ''Thrilling Adventure Stories.'' Ware has created six pages of artwork that resemble a 1950s superhero comic except that the words don't narrate the action in the pictures. Instead, the lettering tells you stories about childhood, family, early experiences with sex and racism. The effect is like picking up a long-discarded comic book and literally reading into it, as if it had magically incorporated the thoughts and feelings you'd had when reading it 30 years ago.
This year's Raw also includes one of Lynda Barry's dazzling stories of teenage angst; a collaboration by Alan Moore and Mark Beyer about the Japanese (and American) practice of self-abasement; the latest chapter of Art Spiegelman's emerging classic of the Holocaust, Maus; and a cover illustration by R. Crumb, advising us that we're down to our final option. ''Nothin' left to do but pray!!'' says Crumb. Maybe but first, Raw. A