THE HOBBIT by J. R. R. Tolkien, illustrated by David Wenzel, adapted by Charles Dixon with Sean Deming (Eclipse: $12.95) . "The Hobbit" remains both the simplest and most problematic of J. R. R. Tolkien's works. Although it serves as a prelude to "The Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit" remains a children's story that lacks the epic sweep of the later trilogy. David Wenzel, Charles Dixon and Sean Deming turn this charming tale into a rather stodgy Classics Comic, peopled with wooden figures. Elrond and Gandalf lack the requisite otherwordly majesty; Thranduil, the king of Wood-Elves, looks like a podgy bishop in a bad historic film, and their red-nosed version of Bilbo Baggins fails to convey the proper aura of British coziness. None of the characters emerge as individuals: Gandalf and all the Dwarfs are drawn with similar beards and costumes, so it's difficult to tell them apart. There have been numerous attempts to depict Middle Earth, including the calendars of the Hildebrandts and the regrettable films of Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass. They've all failed because Tolkien's prose isn't visually oriented: It should be read--or better yet, chanted--around a campfire, like the medieval sagas that inspired it.