The thing is, the Thing is Jewish.

That's a statement probably worth a double-take for the millions of people - mostly former teen-age boys - who grew up with the characters of the Fantastic Four comic book. And even for those who ignored or sneered at comics - moms, pay attention here - it's a small indication of a shift in the way our culture deals with faith.

That Benjamin Jacob Grimm - a huge, orange, lumpy, enormously strong caricature of a human being - blue-eyed idol of millions and his Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew, should be Jewish after all these years, who knew?

Well, lots of people say they knew, unofficially. But to have it actually appear in the plot of the comic book more than four decades after the character was "born," that's a different thing entirely. And that's what happened recently: Ben Grimm was explicitly identified as Jewish for the first time in an issue titled "Remembrance of Things Past."

How far past? The Fantastic Four was created for Marvel Comics in 1961 by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Fans immediately recognized the story as a seismic shift away from square-jawed, flawless heroes like Superman who lived in places called "Metropolis" and toward bollixed-up human characters who flail around New York City.

Even the origin of the FF (as the comics cognoscenti call them) was a snafu. Four friends, including test pilot Ben Grimm, were accidentally exposed to radiation during a rocket test and returned to Earth with various superhuman powers. Together they became sort of super family with recognizably ordinary squabbles to settle among themselves while they battled super villains. Ben's blue-collar battle cry became "It's clobberin' time!"

The success of the FF begat Spider-man, the Hulk, Daredevil, the Punisher, Blade, and the X-Men (just to choose characters who have come or will be coming soon to a movie theater near you) and dozens of others. The FF success woke up DC Comics - home of Superman, Batman and other costumed heroes - which started adding fascinating, fallible traits to its lineup.

Over the years, the writers told readers all kinds of things about the habits and foibles of the characters. We knew about their taste in clothing, their troubles with relationships, their sense of humor. But we rarely discovered whether they followed any particular religion.

That seems odd in one way. Back in the dawn of the modern comic book, more than 90 percent of Americans self-identified with a particular religion, mostly some kind of Christianity. Why wouldn't reality-linked superheroes have a particular religion?

But American popular culture, at least in second half of the 20th century, was vague about the faith of fictional icons. What church did Lucy Ricardo attend? What kinds of prayers did Matt Dillon say? What kind of wedding did Ben Cartwright have? Nobody knew, or at least the creators didn't tell us.

So when the creators of the Fantastic Four came along, they followed suit. "I wanted these stories to be palatable for readers of every type," Lee said recently. "My one `religious' precept was, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat people the way you would want to be treated."

Partly, comics writers have stayed away from explicit religion to avoid offending. "Nobody is not going to buy a comic because they don't use religion as part of the story," said Maggie Thompson, editor of the Comics Buyer's Guide. But there's another reason, said Tony Isabella, a writer on more than a dozen comics, including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Mickey Mouse and Superman. "So many writers have no background in anything but popular entertainment," he said. "They don't have faith of any kind. They don't have a historical or social context."

For whatever reason, only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of characters that have appeared in comics have been attached to any particular faith. But it turns out that Jack Kirby, an active, synagogue-attending Jew, had a faith in mind for at least one of his characters.

Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzburg) was an irascible, cigar-smoking, wryly funny product of New York City's tough Lower East Side. So was his co-creation, Ben Grimm. Kirby died in 1996, but members of his family and many of the folks who worked for Marvel Comics over the decades say they knew that Kirby always thought of the Thing as a sort of alter-ego - and Jewish. In fact, Kirby once drew the Thing wearing the traditional Jewish skullcap and prayer shawl and holding a prayer book.

Lee (born Stanley Leiber) and Kirby were not the only Jewish creators behind famous comic characters. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish teen-agers from Cleveland, dreamed up Superman almost 25 years before the birth of the FF.

The Man of Steel's origin was even a loose adaptation of the story of Moses. Moses' mother floats the baby in a basket on the Nile to save his life. He's rescued and becomes a mighty hero. Kal-El's parents put their baby in a rocket to save his life and he's rescued and becomes a mighty hero.