Knight Rusty
Ritter Rost, Jörg Hilbert, Felix Janosa, Carlsen, Ueberreuther, Annette Betz, Ritter
452
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Knight Rusty

I am often asked how Knight Rusty came to be. The answer to that question is as simple as it is complicated: not overnight.

 

As far back as the early seventies when I was sitting in elementary school, I would decorate my dictation papers with doodles. Later on, I made small booklets with cartoons, poems, and stories which I gave to my parents, friends and classmates. They all had different themes like volleyball, pirates and knight’s castles. One of these little books was about a small dragon from pre-historical times, who preoccupied me ever since and of course, in time, would turn out to be Koke. But it would still be a while before then because I turned to music next. Even today, music still holds a special interest for me. At one point, though, I found out that I was actually a better artist than a musician. And I could write – seeing as how I’m descended from a family of chronically crazy rhyme-makers, whose most famous offspring, Joachim Ringelnatz, was a poet, it seemed that writing was in my blood.

 

So, I had my world: drawing, writing and music, and it’s just wonderful how I can combine all three of these inclinations into my work today. Yet, back then, I was mainly occupied with drawing. Even in high school, I began publishing political caricatures in our hometown newspaper. On the side, I drew music cartoons for a few professional journals, nothing spectacular, but it was a little extra income. Some of my cartoons were even published in a few major German newspapers, for instance the Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Vienna Journal and Die Zeit. Looking back, however, all these were five-finger exercises, because I was about to encounter a formative experience: meeting my great idol Paul Flora.

Paul Flora

To the Austrians, Paul Flora is something of an institution. To everyone else, he is most likely known as the long-term illustrator for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. During the time of my civil service, I was to visit him in Innsbruck. Flora was the first person to really encourage me; I am not only indebted to him for setting me up with numerous contacts to galleries and shows, but perhaps for the most important thing a young person needs: confirmation. Naturally, I had shown him my stories of dragons, and it was through his mediation that my stories landed in the holy hallways of various children’s book publishing companies. Unfortunately, neither my stories nor my illustrations were the desired style of the times, and so, even the intervention of the infamous Flora didn’t get me very far. At about that same time, I started my studies in Essen in Communication Design and I finished with a well-founded training in Typography and an official diploma to go along with it. All the rest, I dealt with as quickly as possible, because the really exciting stuff I was doing on my own time anyway. The most exciting thing for me had always been books.

A World Made of Scrap

It was at the end of 1987 that I started coming up with a new story about a dragon. This time, there had to be a knight in the story as well, because knights always want to have a dragon or two to fight, to rob them of their treasure, or at least be able to free a damsel in distress. That sounded like conflict, but when two characters quarrel, the author rejoices, because he can really make something out of it. Now, knights are usually strong, brave, clever, humble, and noble; in short, perfect.

But, because I thought perfect knights were boring, I came up with somebody who was different: Not strong, but weak. Not brave, but afraid. Not clever, but simple. Not humble, but loud-mouthed. Not noble, but, well – rusty. And that was to be his name: Knight Rusty. His counterpart would be a beautiful, strong and clever Castle Maiden who swept through the castle like a whirlwind. I named the fire-breathing dragon after a piece of coal, Koke, which left me with the very easy task of drawing a castle out of iron and placing it in a world made of scrap metal.

 

I was certain that this story was something special and so, I sent it off to all the publishing companies of the world. Sadly, though, they all quickly sent my illustrated manuscript back with more or less friendly letters of rejection. So, the Knight Rusty landed in the drawer next to my other molding ideas, and I allowed myself comfort in being able to publish my music cartoons.

Felix

It must have been sometime in 1992 I met music cabaret artist Felix Janosa, who told me that he was looking around for some good material for a children’s musical. I, naturally, introduced him to Knight Rusty. Janosa was thrilled and immediately began to compose. From the very beginning, he was creating music that was so surprisingly different than anything else at that time; It was uncompromisingly professional, wonderfully strange, had brilliant lyrics and yet, was childlike in a very natural way. Luckily, it still is that way today. I used the time to completely re-illustrate the story of Squire Lighter, as it was still called at the time. When we were finished, we had eight songs and a book draft 32 pages long. We printed shirts with Koke on them and went to a book fair to offer our idea to the world. Still, once again, no one took the bait. And once again, Koke, Bo and Knight Rusty were under the threat of rusting away in some forgotten drawer, and Felix and I were already working on a new idea. From then on, Felix and I, together, have produced, in addition to our own work, innumerable books, stories, musical scores, musicals, CDs and other media. But then we did get lucky. At the Music Fair in 1993, I was asked by Theo Geissler if I didn’t have anything I could show him. He was intending to start up a new publishing house called ConBrio and he was desperately looking for something to publish. And did I have something for him!

A Late Birth

And that’s how, in the Spring of 1994, Knight Rusty came to see the light of day. However, in the meantime we had altered the entire project: The text, the illustrations, the musical production, even the title – everything had been revised and amended. It was now called Knight Rusty, the 48 pages included 10 songs with a musical score and a CD – an all-time first for a German children’s book. Including a CD meant that the whole thing was unusually expensive, and on top of that, ConBrio Publisher was new and completely unknown. There was practically no promotion and no sales-representation. Today, I think it was just short of a miracle that Knight Rusty managed to become a bestseller. Yet, as unbelievable as it seems, he did. A first stage performance followed thereafter (today, there are about 400 per year), and three more books were also soon published.

The major breakthrough and the transformation from being an insider’s tip to becoming a classic didn’t happen until the turn of the millennium, when the series was transferred to Terzio Publishers, which has been part of CARLSEN since 2012. After that, Rusty experienced a sudden and intensified appearance on the shelves of the bookstores. Terzio released further volumes, in addition to CD-Roms, audio cassettes, other books, music notes for lessons, media to learn English, a cookbook, and lots more. Meanwhile, there is an international movie and a TV serial. No wonder Knight Rusty was bound to get turned into a movie at some point, though this is quite a sad chapter I don’t want to go into detail with. Just this: there are two movies and two TV seasons (KIKA/ZDF), which are named like the books and whose protagonists even bear a slight resemblance to mine. After an intermezzo with CARLSEN publishing in Hamburg (2012 to 2019), Rusty has found a new home with the Annette Betz publishing company in Berlin.

Meanwhile, there are over 30 books about Knight Rusty, 18 of which in the original combination including a narrating picture book and a CD. There are more volumes to come, as well as a Knight Rusty opera. We have already passed the 25 year anniversary since the first edition and we are nearing the day on which Knight Rusty will have existed for three decades. Whole generations of children grew up with Rusty, laughed about the self-sufficient anti-hero and belted along to his songs. And of course it will continue.