Animation fans know there are toons and there are cartoons . . . and then there are Plymptoons.

If a star has risen out of the many animation compilations that come to town each year it is Bill Plympton. His unique pencil drawings and abstract comedy have endeared him to audiences who look forward each year to his next series of off-the-wall gags."They're just pencil drawings on bond paper," Plympton says. "That's the lowest tech you can get!"

He started doing animation that way just because it was inexpensive, Plympton explained during a telephone interview from his New York office. But he soon realized he had stumbled onto a unique and satisfying style. "It's also quicker."

Plympton's latest piece is "The Wise Man," playing as part of "The Third Animation Celebration" at the Tower Theater for three weeks beginning Friday. The film is being shown to help raise funds in the effort to rebuild the Tower as a community art film showcase.

"The Third Animation Celebration" also features a rapid-fire seriesof titled blackout gags from Plympton, which he calls, appropriately enough, "Plymptoons."

"The Wise Man" is a slight departure for Plympton, a bit more thoughtful than most of his work, though no less bizarre. The "Plymptoons" are more familiar slapstick gags that take full advantage of the kind of zany action only animation can offer.

Plympton, 45, spent years as a cartoonist before tackling animation - mostly gag and political cartoons for Rolling Stone, National Lampoon and Playboy, among other magazines.

"I always wanted to be an animator, but I never had the money or the knowledge of how to do it.

"Then I got an offer to do a Jules Feiffer animated cartoon called `Boom Town.' It won some awards and I learned how to make a film." Plympton's first solo work was "Your Face," a goofy piece set to the song that shows a man's face evolving into all kinds of comic elements. It was an instant hit.

"Being an illustrator, you're always drawing people's faces, playing with them, distorting them. I financed it myself, and it wasn't very expensive. It was quite cheap to make, actually. Then what you do is take it to film festivals, and if it gets a good response the distributors who are there may see it and want to buy it."

He followed "Your Face" with two hilarious pieces that are favored works among animation buffs - "25 Ways to Quit Smoking" and "How to Kiss." "Basically I'm turning all the gag cartoons from magazines into films."

Plympton hopes to come out with a video collection of his many short pieces one day soon, but for the time being some of his work can be found on Expanded Entertainment's "International Tournee of Animation" video collections and a tape called "Outrageous Animation." (These animation collections are available for rent at the Cinema in Your Face! theater.)

At the moment Plympton is working on commercials for NutriSweet, doing a takeoff on "25 Ways to Quit Smoking" - "three ways to quite eating sugar."

And he's in the middle of his first animated feature, which he likens to "Yellow Submarine," and of which "The Wise Man" is a part. And though "The Wise Man" is in his familiar pencil style, the feature as a whole will have a more fully developed animation look with backgrounds on acetate and musical interludes. Plympton hopes to have the feature in theaters before year's end.