In 1917 an artist named Jacob Kurtzberg was born in this building on the Lower East Side of New York City. Twenty three years later he drew a picture of a man clothed in the flag of the United States punching a person named Adolf Hitler in the face, a full year before the U.S. would go to war against Germany, but after folks had heard murmurs of what was happening.
The artist got death threats for the picture, which was published on the cover of a newsprint magazine filled with lots of other color drawings he did as well. It sold almost a million copies. The Mayor of the City, Fiorella La Guardia, called the artist to tell him that he supported him and his drawing.
In 1943 the artist was drafted into the Army, where he served as a reconnaissance scout, because he could draw maps and other useful things. He also saw things other people didn’t see, or would never see; maybe couldn’t see, or shouldn’t see. Private First Class Kurtzberg came back to the U.S. with a bronze medal shaped like a star, just like the one on the chest of the man who punched Hitler in the face.
The artist kept drawing; drew until his body stopped being able to draw. He drew the world, he drew a universe! He drew the man in the flag, named Captain America; he gave him friends named Thor and Iron Man, made them a team, called the Avengers. He drew another team of New Yorkers named the Fantastic Four, another team of New Yorkers named the X-Men, who were hunted and feared because they were born different, even though they looked just like you and me. The Black Panther, genius king of Wakanda. So many new gods, so many New Gods!
When I say the artist “drew” these characters, I mean “dreamed.” Until he drew them, they weren’t real yet; the artist dreamed them into being, pulled these myths into our world from deep inside.
The man born in this building in 1917 as Jacob Kurtzberg had other names. Children by the billion called him “Jack Kirby.” I call him “KING.” There’s no plaque on the brick of 147 Essex Street with any of these names. There doesn’t need to be. Don’t you know why? Didn’t you see the clerk at the Strand wearing the shield of Captain America on her shirt, see a graffitied and fading billboard for the Avengers in the Union Square station, see the baby in the stroller yesterday in an Iron Man onesie? New York City itself in the 21st century is a plaque to Jack Kirby.
Plus like acorns falling from an oak there are millions more
plaques to Jack Kirby printed every month, billions printed since 1943. We call the dreams he drew “comic books,” call the people he drew “heroes,” all these dreams are brighter than the star on the chest of that soldier punching Hitler in the face.