If floors were walls, Stan Lee would be Spider-Man.

Hey, Stan Lee IS Spider-Man!

Caged in his hotel room a few hours before a recent Smithsonian lecture on Marvel Comics -- and Stan Lee IS Marvel Comics! -- he's either pacing the floor in animated explanation or stretching his skinny six-foot frame so it spills out of a sofa chair onto the floor. Stan Lee cannot be still, or be stilled.

"I'm embarrassed to say this, but I think I'm my biggest fan," he says charmingly, with absolutely no shame. "I'll look through some of the old issues and say, 'Gee, this is wonderful -- did I write this?'

"And the artwork!"

Those old issues are of classic comics like "The Fantastic Four," "The Incredible Hulk," "The Incredible Spider-Man," a glorious roster of super-heroes and super-villains who sprang to life from Stan Lee's fertile mind and were brought to living color by a coterie of artists who in the '60s turned Marvel into the leading publisher of comic books.

It's a story well told -- and beautifully illustrated with 800 color photos -- in Les Daniels's "Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics." Lee, the most famous writer and editor in the genre's history, says he didn't write the book himself mostly "because I would have been inhibited mentioning myself all the time."

Modest he's not. When Lee talks, you expect speech balloons to emerge from his mouth, or ridiculous sound effects -- "BKKKOOOM!!!!!" -- to explode in the middle of a discourse. He has lived long -- 68 years -- and prospered, but there is still about Lee something of the perpetual adolescent who's likely to be a Marvel reader. There is a gleeful energy, a sheer delight in self.

Or selves. After all, Stan Lee is a man with character -- lots of them. Complex characters, starting in 1961 with the Fantastic Four -- Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing. In creating a space-age nuclear family -- they had all undergone transformations when their experimental rocket passed through a cosmic ray storm -- he rejected the simplistic plots, vocabulary and definitions of virtue that had held sway and established what now seems the comic norm: flawed characters. Lee humanized his heroes, shifting attention from plot to personality.

"I tried to make them real flesh-and-blood characters with personality, which should not be considered radical," he says. "That's what any story should have, but comics didn't up to that point, they were all cardboard figures. Make them real, give them personality. Give them problems." Quirky realism crept into the comics world, and as Daniels notes in his book, the superhero concept was "reworked, revised, reshaped and, perhaps most crucially, revitalized."

Today Lee's influence is still felt -- witness, for example, the Marvel super-hero Northstar, who recently acknowledged that he is gay -- but Lee's attention is turned elsewhere. In 1980, after 41 years in New York, Stan Lee moved to Los Angeles, his publisher-chairman title intact (though partly emeritus) and with new goals: improving Marvel's position in Hollywood and setting up an animation studio.

Although Batman, Superman and Dick Tracy have all vanquished the box office, no Marvel character has made the leap (Howard the Duck tried, but was a big-budget flop in 1986). That may change next year when James Cameron, who directed the "Terminator" films and "Aliens," directs a big-buck blowout version of "Spider-Man."

Like Trekkies, new generations of Marvel fans keep signing on -- Marvel, considered the industry leader since the early '60s, claims more than half of the $500 million comic book market. It puts out 80 to 100 titles a month (most in the summer, when kids are out of school) and sells some 8.5 million copies a month.


Stan Lee once had a secret identity.

More than 50 years ago, just after the last depression, Stanley Martin Leiber was a 17-year-old looking for work. He'd had part-time jobs, including writing preliminary obits of famous people for the Associated Press ("I got tired of writing about living people in the past tense") and doing publicity for a hospital ("I wasn't sure if I was supposed to convince people to get sick so they'd go to the hospital or what").

Then, in November 1940, Timely Publications hired him as a temporary office boy for $8 a week. Publisher Martin Goodman looked up one day and noticed Leiber, who happened to be his wife's cousin. "What are you doing here?" It would be a question Lee asked himself many times in the intervening years.

"It was fun, new," Lee says. "It was a job and it happened to be comics. I never thought it would be a career."

It certainly didn't start out that way. Lee swept floors, proofread, did odd jobs and eventually began to work as an assistant to Art Director Jack Kirby and Editor Joe Simon -- the Timely staff. The comics industry, offspring of the newspaper comic strips and purple-prose pulps, was still in diapers; the first comic book had appeared only seven years before when someone had folded a Sunday color comic supplement and called it a book. Superman was a year old when Goodman's firm introduced its first book, Marvel Comics No. 1, featuring Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch (one of those original 12-cent comics sold in 1987 for $82,000). With his common plaint of "why must everything I touch turn to flames?" the Human Torch was something of a precursor to Marvel's subsequent protagonists.

Stanley Leiber's first writing effort came in May of 1941 in Captain America No. 3. It was filler, an unillustrated two-page fiction that had to be included to qualify comics for inexpensive magazine mailing rates. It was such filler that Stanley Martin Leiber, who entertained visions of someday becoming a great writer, decided not to waste that magnificent name on comics and so took the name Stan Lee, and began gradually working up the Timely ladder as editor, art director and then head writer for "Captain America."

Eventually, the name Leiber was legally changed to Lee, but for many years, its owner was as evasive about his real profession as his super-heroes were about theirs. At parties, Lee would tell people he was "a writer ... for magazines. ... Sooner or later I had to say 'comic books,' and then they would avoid me like I had the plague. Today it's so different -- now comics are considered to be quite glamorous."

Now comics are also considered an art form -- his Smithsonian lecture was just another chapter in a credibility campaign Lee has waged since the mid-'60s comics renaissance. It was always a small, volatile market, and in the '40s and early '50s (what many describe as the golden age of comics), Marvel was little more than a production line, a follower of trends, not a setter of them. Its lines included super-heroes, westerns, sports journals, war tales, mysteries and detective stories, horrors and romances..

After a 1955 congressional hearing seeking links between comics, violent crime and juvenile delinquency resulted in the Comics Code, Lee wrote innocuous stories about Nellie the Nurse, Terry the Typist and Millie the Model; in the animal kingdom, he celebrated Ziggy the Pig, Silly the Seal and Super Duck. Lee also championed the ruthless investigative skills of " 'Headline' Hunter, Foreign Correspondent" (written by Reel Nats, a typically bad Lee pseudonym).

His heroes and villains were almost always aimed at an audience that barely made it into long pants. "The problem was that nobody stayed with the comics past the age of 11 or 12," Lee recalls, adding that he spent much of the '50s wanting to quit the business.

"I enjoyed it but I was in my late twenties and I was feeling like a deejay in small town: 'Is anybody listening?' Did anybody care? I felt I was a better writer, that I shouldn't be wasting my life on this. So it was always, well, I'll stay just a little bit longer, because this is fun."

As the '50s ended, Lee was ready to move on after once again being asked to work on super-hero comics, by that time a dying corner of a nose-diving comics industry. Even Marvel's dynamic trio had faded into oblivion after a short vogue in World War II. While the first edition of Captain America had featured the Captain punching Hitler in the face, he had been discontinued in 1950 (briefly resurrected mid-decade as a "Commie-smasher"). The Human Torch had been extinguished, Sub-Mariner dry-docked. Pushing 40, Stan Lee felt tapped out in a business with no future -- not unlike his postwar super-heroes.

"Where was I going? I couldn't use words of more than two syllables or create complicated plots -- the good guy had to be all good, the bad guy all bad. I hated that. My wife said, 'Do one last book the way you want to. If Martin {Goodman} gets mad, he fires you. You want to quit anyway, so what have you got to lose?' "

"So I wasn't trying to start something new," Lee says. "I was just trying to get it out of my system once and for all."

Enter the Fantastic Four, albeit in the footsteps of rival DC Comics' new and successful Justice League of America. "Martin Goodman felt there might be a resurgence of hero teams," Lee recalls, conceding that original thoughts often had echoes in those days. "And so he asked me to create one.

"But I tried to get rid of the stereotypes, the cliches," Lee explains. "Instead of the girl being the girlfriend of the hero who always had to be rescued and didn't know that the mild-mannered hero was really the super-hero, I gave the Invisible Girl a superpower equal to the others -- she was the hero's fiancee and an active partner."

Invisible Girl's teenage brother, the rekindled Human Torch, "wasn't that nice a guy, he always felt he was wasting his time -- since he wasn't getting paid, he'd really rather be modifying his Chevy or chasing girls.

"Mr. Fantastic, as he modestly called himself, was rather stuffy," he says of Reed Richards, the scientist who could stretch his body into any conceivable (or drawable) shape. "He was bright, he was heroic, but he was also a bore.

"The Thing, who had a serious problem with his complexion, was easily the most popular because he was the most humorous, a semi-monster," Lee says of the gorilla-like Thing who hated his transformations (perhaps because he had to wear a blue diaper).

The new heroes on the block had personal problems as interesting as their powers, Lee proudly notes. "You ask the audience to suspend disbelief and accept that some idiot can climb on walls, but once that's accepted, you ask: What would life be like in the real world if there were such a character? Would he still have to worry about dandruff, about acne, about getting girlfriends, about keeping a job?"

Generally well intentioned, they were often misunderstood. Often, they were just clumsy as they wrestled not only with evil but with themselves and their concepts of who they were. There was the realization that with great powers came great responsibilities.

The response was immediate -- sales figures for the Fantastic Four were the company's best in years -- and for the first time, Marvel started getting fan mail written in something other than crayon. Like Mr. Fantastic himself, the Fantastic Four comics stretched the audience to include high school students and college kids. The Marvel Universe soon grew to include heroes and antiheroes like Daredevil, Iron Man, the Mighty Thor, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer and the Incredible Hulk (originally gray-skinned, turned green by a printer's error). The Hulk (a k a Dr. David Banner) was both typical and atypical: Part man, part monster, he also hated transformations that represented the triumph of impulse over intellect. Basically he just wanted to be alone.

And, of course, there was that wall-crawler, that web-swinger, that quintessential Marvel creature who almost didn't make it off the presses. When Lee had first approached Goodman in 1962 with a vague creature-hero idea -- Mosquito-Man? Insect-Man? How about Spider-Man? -- the publisher hated it. Wouldn't let him publish it. Goodman simply couldn't buy the concept of teen-age Peter Parker, who, having been bitten by a radioactive spider, gradually turned into a costumed Woody Allen -- physically vulnerable and emotionally a disaster. He also thought readers would find the spider concept "distasteful."

Lee pulled an end-around, slipping his Spider-Man story into Amazing Adult Fantasy No. 15, what was to be the the last issue of a comic aimed at older readers.

"We were set to do one last issue and nobody cared what you put inside a book that was about to be killed," Lee explains. "Again, it was just to get it out of my system." And so the Amazing Spider-Man appeared in that last issue, suggesting that while "the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teenager ... it will soon Marvel at the awesome might of ... Spider-Man."

Peter/Spidey was, as Daniels writes in his Marvel history, "the epitome of the radical innovations that characterized the Marvel Age ... he was neurotic, compulsive and profoundly skeptical about the whole idea of becoming a costumed savior. The Fantastic Four argued with each other, and the Hulk and Thor had problems with their alter-egos, but Spider-Man had to struggle with himself."

A few months later, when the sales figures came in, Marvel had its best seller in a decade, with every copy sold (those issues are now worth more than $3,000 apiece). And Goodman came back to Lee, saying, "Stan, remember that idea we liked about Spider-man? Let's make a series."

Spidey himself went on to become Marvel's symbol and, according to one survey, the world's most popular super-hero.

After Timely became Marvel in the early '60s, it established a reputation for breaking new ground. "Daredevil" was the first blind super-hero; black super-heroes Black Panther (1968) and Luke Cage (1972) helped break the color line with their own series, while "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos" (1963) had featured the comic world's first ethnic platoon with a black (Gabriel Jones), a Jew (Izzy Cohen) and an Italian (Dino Manelli).

Marvel was the first comics line to print "screen credits" for writers, artists, inkers, letters, colorists and editor, which explains the rise of such artist-heroes as Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, John Romita, Steve Ditko, John Byrne, Bill Sienkiewiz and, most recently, Todd McFarlane.

In the old days, writers had written and artists had traditionally, sometimes rigidly, followed the scripts. Lee turned that around as well, understanding that his artists "were storytellers themselves." He discussed or synopsized the stories and let the artists draw them and frame them any way they wanted ("they could stretch something out or condense it"), and he'd put in the dialogue, story and sound effects when they sent them back to him.

It helped that Lee was a frustrated director who would act out how he wanted Marvel's artists to portray the drama of assorted characters and situations. "I would ask them to draw the extreme of every action, the ultimate action," he says, leaping up to re-create his version of "method comics."

Lee stands there as if he's just seen a projection of the 1992 federal deficit. "So if a woman is screaming, then it shouldn't just be this" (Lee delivers a petite, tight-mouthed squeal), but THIS!" (suddenly the mouth opens very wide and goes AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!).

Until he retired from his editing duties in 1971, Stan Lee himself wrote all the copy for Marvel's covers: titles, captions, blurbs. Cover copy was "the one bit of writing I wouldn't let anyone else do. That's because it was the most important thing in those days -- the comics were lined up on the rack and they had to catch the reader's eyes."

When Lee became Marvel's publisher, others took over the writing, though he has continued to write the "Spider-Man" comic strip carried in more than 500 papers. "I couldn't keep doing them forever," he says of the comic books.

He stayed out of the frame when Todd McFarlane not only made his beloved Spider-Man more athletic and dramatic, but changed his classic red and blue costume to an all-black outfit (abandoned years later), and later when Marvel killed off Peter Parker's first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. "I went on vacation and came back and she was gone," Lee says, just a tad disapprovingly. But "like a parent whose kids get married, you can't keep telling them how to live," Lee says of his characters. Or how to die.

While Spider-Man remains a hardy perennial (with five different series), Marvel's biggest success these days is the X-Men series (seven different titles). Where that 1990 Spiderman sold 3 million copies, a recent new X-Men series kicked off with a record of 8 million copies.

Last June, Marvel (now owned by the McAndrews and Forbes firm) offered its first stock prospectus -- with a costumed Spidey on hand on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It opened at 18 1/8 and last week stood at 57. That's a crawl in the right direction that Spider-Man and Stan Lee can both appreciate.

Did someone say, "It's clobberin' time"?