DALLAS (AP) _ The Dallas Times Herald filed suit Monday against the owner of its crosstown rival, The Dallas Morning News, as one of the nation's fiercest newspaper wars returned to court after a yearlong absence.

In a lawsuit filed in Houston, the smaller Times Herald asked a Texas judge to prevent Morning News owner A.H. Belo Corp. from acquiring exclusive Dallas- area rights to 26 comics, columns and other features it currently publishes.

The lawsuit claims Belo and Universal Press Syndicate will ''inexorably harm competition in the Dallas market'' if the rights are granted.

The Times Herald chose Houston seeking neutrality, President L.L. ''Ike'' Massey said.

Belo announced last week it had formed a joint venture with Universal Press Syndicate to explore television programming possibilities for some of the syndicate's features, which include such comic strips as Doonesbury and The Far Side, advice column Dear Abby, and columnists Erma Bombeck and James J. Kilpatrick.

As part of that agreement, Belo - which also owns Dallas' top television station - acquired the exclusive rights to the syndicate's features in the market.

''The Belo company is attempting to unfairly increase its influence in the Dallas market, where it already operates the larger newspaper, the leading television station and seven community newspapers,'' Massey said in a statement. ''Now it wants to manipulate a newspaper syndicate against us.''

Besides blocking the transfer, the Times Herald is seeking actual and punitive damages.

Last week Belo President James P. Sheehan said the exclusivity agreement ''really is secondary'' to the joint venture. However, he said ''it wouldn't be appropriate for us to develop one of the features to be running in a competitor's newspaper in our market.''

Universal Press and Belo officials did not return telephone calls Monday seeking a response to the suit.

Just last year, the two newspapers settled a dispute over circulation figures, with each dropping a lawsuit against the other in an argument begun by the Times Herald.