THE ELVIS PRESLEY stamps are stunningly attractive. So was the Michael Jackson stamp, although it didn't sell anywhere near as rapidly as those issued recently for "The King."

Don't dash off the Post Office for either of these stamps honoring American pop artists, or those featuring other U.S. entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie. Long before they could possibly appear on U.S. stamps they will have been appearing on the postage of a number of small countries.

That rubs a lot of collectors and some stamp dealers the wrong way. Stamps should be issued for postage and depict people and places directly related to the country issuing them, these critics say.

Which is certainly not the case with the Elvis and Jackson stamps.

"They're made for mercenary value," grouses Hagerstown dealer Larry Angle. "You wonder where they're made. I doubt if some of them ever end up in the country for which they're intended."

Angle and others say that to a growing number of countries, many of them from the Third World, stamps are simply revenue-raisers, and young, gullible U.S. collectors are footing the bill. Angle says he doubts if many of the stamps ever get used in their country of issue.

These stamps often are produced and printed in London and New York by graphic design firms that grind them out like Chiclets, primarily for sale to collectors far from the country that ordered them.

Elvis has been dead more than 10 years and thus is eligible for a U.S. stamp. There's no indication from Postal Service headquarters that he's anywhere near getting a U.S. commemorative, but Elvis made his philatelic debut in 1985 on the stamps of the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent. This year the West African Republic of Guinea and the Central African Republic have followed suit.

The results have been overwhelming, according to Jay Scheffler of Marlen Stamps & Coins Ltd. of Great Neck, New York, which specializes in new issues.

He said the firm has sold "thousands" of the 300-franc Guinea Elvis stamp and a related souvenir sheet that contains a single stamp and a decorative border. At the current price of $1.70 for the stamp and $30 for the sheet, they are proving to be best sellers that have Guinea's tax coffers feeling good.

Scheffler defends Guinea and other countries for issuing attractive stamps designed for collectors outside their borders. "Tourism is often very important to these countries and stamps are a great way to promote tourism," he says.

"I'm sure some of them do issue stamps to make money," he says. "Certainly they don't issue stamps to lose money."

Tolo Beavogui, Guinea's ambassador to the U.S., said "That is a good question" when asked why his country issues so many stamps featuring American subjects. But, he said, the question would have to be referred back to his country's postal authorities.

Are the Guinea stamps issued for the money they raise from U.S. collectors? "Maybe," the ambassador said, signing off with a deep laugh.

Guinea has issued some of the best "U.S. stamps." It spotted Muhammad Ali in 1972 when he was an amateur boxer on the U.S. Olympic team and honored him under the name Cassius Clay.

To be sure, Guinea was not the first country to discover the value of issuing brightly colored stamps that appeal to U.S. collectors. San Marino, the tiny Southern European republic, long was known as "the postage stamp country."

Marlen's Scheffler says the Elvis stamp is being gobbled up more by fans of the entertainer than by stamp collectors. "These Elvis fans go crazy any time they see anything like this," he says.

As for youngsters lining up for the stamps and plunking down their weekly allowances for the Elvis stamp, Scheffler says it isn't happening. "Most young collectors don't know who Elvis is," he said.

Bill McAllister is on The Post national staff.