Comics used to be the joy of kids who crouched by drugstore magazine racks, pawing over colorful booklets featuring Superman and Wonderwoman, Archie and Jughead, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Katy Keene, America's Pin-up Queen. Those were innocent days when a pulp-paper dreambook cost 10 cents and could keep a kid occupied for days, reading and rereading the innocent adventures of all-American superheroes, dopey teenagers and aspiring starlets.

Comics are a different breed now, all grown up and sophisticated, hanging out on the Web and lounging about in specialty stores where bona fide adults pay up to $20 for them. Superheroes are huge as always, but there are myriad comic genres -- literary, political, reportorial, historical, existential, autobiographical, philosophical. The 2008 catalog from the international comic publisher Drawn and Quarterly includes graphic novels by artists from the Ivory Coast, Japan, Israel, England, France and Finland as well as the United States.

"What we're seeing is that comics are a new medium for artists. The days of superheroes and villians are gone; people are expressing their own worldviews and situations in comics," said Theresa Downing, co-curator with Andrew DeVore of "Hot Ink: Comic Art in Minnesota," which runs through March 22 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul. The Twin Cities are a hub of the contemporary underground comic scene, she said, thanks in part to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), one of the nation's few art schools to offer both bachelor's and master's degrees in comic art. MCAD Prof. Barbara Schulz (no relation to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz) is represented in the show by several dramatic panels of "Hercules" comics that she produced in collaboration with illustrator Steve Kurth.

The 18 artists featured in "Hot Ink" operate at all points of the comic art compass. Don't be misled by the term "comic," which encompasses a remarkable range of illustrated narratives as well as occasional humorous panels. A lyrical moodiness animates the drawings of Tyler Page, who holds a master's in comic art from MCAD. He self-published three volumes of "Stylish Vittles," a quasiautobiographical romance detailing the ups and downs in a relationship that unfolds on the campus of St. Olaf College, where Page earned his bachelor's degree. He makes brilliant use of the college's leafy hilltop setting and collegiate Gothic architecture, which hangs as a kind of landscape-wallpaper behind panels of conversation about everything from family tensions to the nature of God.

Polish-born Tom Kaczynski takes an intellectual turn in "Noise: A History," which illustrates that topic in nine little panels starting with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago and highlighting such sonic moments as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and a guy listening to headphones on a New York subway. Among the better known cartoon characters on view are "Nietzsche and Marx," a philosophical boy and his tiger pal, whom cartoonist Andy Singer has syndicated to national publications. There's a bleak, atmospheric desolation in Brittney Sabo's Web comic "Badlands," whose protagonists are a farm couple struggling for survival during the Great Depression.

A populist complaint about the contemporary art scene is that artists today "can't draw." More to the point is that those who can draw have probably turned to cartooning. For anyone who appreciates great drawing, this show is a good place to find it.