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The Rusty Knight

Ritter Rost

I am often asked how The Rusty Knight 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, which, of course, in time, turned out to be Koke. But it would still be awhile 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 caracatures in our homteown 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. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Vienna Journal, Die Zeit and other print media)

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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. He was the first person to really encourage me. I am not only indebted to him for setting me up with numerous contacts to galeries 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 illustations 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.

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 are in conflict, an author is happy 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: the Rusty Knight. 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 a more or less friendly letter of rejection. So, the Rusty Knight landed in the drawer next to the other of my molding ideas, and I allowed myself comfort in being able to publish my music cartoons. In any case, I had other things to deal with too, as it was about that time that I met my bride and future mother of my two children. She was a pianist, named Susanne, and she became my model for the Castle Maiden Bo, and that not only because of her red hair! Susanne also proved to be the tie to my next important encounter.

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It must have been sometime in 1992 that Susanne invited me to go to a cabaret with a certain Felix Janosa. She knew him from university and so, I met him that night. Felix told me that he was looking around for some good material for a children’s musical. I, naturally, introduced him to the Rusty Knight. He was thrilled and began immediately 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 brillant lyrics and yet, was childlike in a very natural way. Luckily, it’s still that way today.
I used the time to completely re-illustrate the story of Squire Light, 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 t-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 the Rusty Knight were under the threat of rusting away in some forgotten drawer, and because 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!

And that’s how, in the Spring of 1994, The Rusty Knight 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 titel - everything had been revised and amended. It was now called The Rusty Knight, 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 exspensive 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 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.

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The major breakthrough and the transformation from being an insider's tip to becoming a classic didn’t happen until the turn of the millenium, when the series was transfered to the Terzio Publishers. Since 2012 Terzio is a part of Carlsen. After that, Rusty experienced a sudden and intensified appearance on the bookshelves 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.

© Jörg Hilbert 2017