Look Up On The Net! It's...Cyber Comics

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Peter Parker would understand. A mortal man, going about his mortal business, is bitten by a bug--a special, powerful bug--and it changes his life. Only the bug that bit Stan Lee isn't radioactive; it's interactive. With the print-comics industry besieged by villains (the rapacious Sega! the Pokemon league of doom!), the co-creator of the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Parker's alter ego, Spider-Man, is taking comics online. (Insert "Web"-slinging pun here. --Ed.)

For nearly 60 years, Lee, 77, was a writer and editor for Marvel Comics, a comics-world superstar and creative pioneer beloved of cultural critics and artists like Federico Fellini. Now, overseeing artists and techies at the Encino, Calif., offices of Stan Lee Media, the lanky, spry Lee is crafting his first new characters in 25 years--and recrafting himself as a new-media baron. "When I got into comics, it was the early days of the industry, and it was all new," says Lee. "Here's another chance for me to get in at the beginning."

It's the beginning of what Lee hopes will become a new way of making comics: simple online animated shorts Lee calls "webisodes." Designed to accommodate slower modems, they will run between 3 and 5 minutes--complete with bone-crunching, cape-swishing sound--and take between 1 1/2 and 3 minutes to download at 28.8K. The site also features trivia quizzes and fan pages designed to foster community (just as, Lee notes, print comics did, with their pals-y tone and rowdy letters sections). The first new series, The 7th Portal--about multicultural computer geeks who travel cyberspace to protect Earth against a villain from another dimension--debuts Feb. 29 at was snapped up by an enterprising Texas jeweler, no relation, with whom the company is wrangling).

As in much media today, the strategy for success in online comics is cross-pollination, licensing and alliances. Viewers will watch webisodes for free, but the fledgling company hopes to strike deals for video games, books and TV series, and is working on the apotheosis of today's superhero: theme-park rides. The company has signed with Acme City, a website owned by TIME's parent company, Time Warner. And in a particularly odd cross-media teaming, Lee will create print comics and webisodes starring the Backstreet Boys. (Dare we dream of a death match with 'N Sync?) "There's a lot of females in our audience," says Boy Nick Carter, "and [comics are] a really cool way to get guys involved."

Here's what else is really cool. Since the company began trading publicly last August, Lee's stake has earned him more money than he made in a lifetime with Marvel, testimony to the Web's ability to transmute famous names into cash. Stan the Man is now Stan the Brand.

That too is a second chance. Lee had a lifetime contract, which made him a salaried employee--"high salaried," he grants--without ownership of the lucrative characters he created. But when Marvel went into bankruptcy in 1996 (it emerged in 1998), his contract was voided, and associate Peter Paul--Stan Lee Media's co-founder--helped him cut a new deal. Today Lee is Marvel's chairman emeritus ("Whatever the hell that means") and devotes about 10% of his time to that company. He and Paul soon lined up partnerships with such firms as IBM and Macromedia, which supplies the webisodes' animation software. "Stan isn't creating comics for Stan Lee Media," Paul says. "He's creating animation franchises."

If the plan works, it won't be the first time Lee has remade his trade. Before Lee, being a superhero was pretty straightforward: good was good, evil was evil, and neither was very self-aware. But Lee conceptualized characters, like the Hulk and the Thing, who were literally uncomfortable in their own skins, reluctant superheroes who didn't always feel or act nobly. For his creations, being a superhero was a job; one Spider-Man found Spidey trying unsuccessfully to cash a check in his name (no id). With humor and an ear for the vernacular ("It's clobberin' time!"), Lee put the human in superhuman.

But can he win the kids over? Comics sales have slumped for years, and until high-speed connections become common, even the most skillfully done Web animation will tend to be jerky or slow. Superpowered boy bands or Web surfers kicking butt online (where Slyme's "magical shovel is one of the most feared artifacts throughout cyberspace," according to the website) may seem, well, lame. Today's comics tend toward dark, complicated stories, and although that's arguably an evolution of Lee's innovations, he complains that the new breed has "lost" youngsters. "I don't see any reason not to do a story that an entire family can enjoy," he says.

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