One of the great unknowns of the German cultural world – Lona Rietschel

Foto: Thomas HummitzschLona Rietschel is considered the “mother of the Abrafaxes.” The three kobolds Abrax, Brabax and Califax have been the comic magazine Mosaik’s heroes since 1976. The adventurous pictorial narratives are one of the longest-running comic series in the world.

The Kulturpark Plänterwald in East Berlin was once the GDR’s largest amusement park. The Archenhold Observatory with the world’s longest moveable telescope is nearby. Artist Lona Rietschel has lived for over forty years just a stone’s throw away from both. One can hardly imagine her anywhere else, as the figures she has drawn for decades let people in the GDR dream of far-off worlds and better times. These adventurous pictorial narratives of the three kobolds Abrax, Brabax and Califax provided unforgettable, carefree moments of enjoyment. In spite of printing runs in the millions, the booklets were often sold out shortly after appearing.

From the Digedags to the Abrafaxes

Lona Rietschel (born 1933) is one of the great unknowns of the German cultural world, even though she fulfilled the same role that Hergé and René Goscinny did in the Francophone world, or Walt Disney in the Anglo-American sphere. Her drawings influenced generations of readers.

Foto: Thomas Hummitzsch

The Berlin resident is considered the “mother of the Abrafaxes,” the centrepiece of the Mosaik booklets, which are popular to this day. The comic series, first elevated to cult status by readers living under East German socialism, is now read enthusiastically throughout Germany. It is not only Germany’s most successful pictorial narrative, but also the longest-running comic series in the world. The Mosaik booklets are among the few cultural goods that have survived the transfer from “Realsozialismus” to the capitalistic market economy. Booklet no. 454 appeared in October 2013.

In May 2013, Lona Rietschel was awarded the Peng!-Preis of the Munich Comic Festival for lifetime achievement, in no small measure because her name is closely bound up with this success story, although it was Hannes Hegen who first laid the foundation for the booklets in 1955 with his pictorial tales about the Digedags. Lona Rietschel joined the Mosaik collective on May 1, 1960. Prior to this, she had studied fashion graphics, attended a class on animated film and had worked as a fashion dressmaker. She acquired her comprehensive knowledge of figurative drawing during these years in training. Rietschel quickly became one of the most important figurative artists on the Mosaik editorial board. First she lent the Digedasgs facial expression and gestures, later she brought the Abrafaxes to life.

Drawing figures was both her profession and her greatest fascination. When she took on the volume Asterix and the Golden Sickle (Asterix und die goldene Sichel), she studied the drawings of the figures with a magnifying glass through an entire night.

Lona Rietschel worked in the team under Hannes Hegen for fifteeen years before he got “the nonsensical idea of quitting,” she recollects. These were the years that influenced her life the most. Gratitude and melancholy are in her gaze when she recalls the family atmosphere of the Mosaik collective in the 1960’s. Nonetheless, Hannes Hegen withdrew from the editorial board in 1975 following a dispute. Rietschel grieves about this to this day.

Graphic breakthrough after 1975

In the same year, the Mosaik editorial board joined the Verlag Junge Welt, which was closely associated with the SED and published the popular comics. Hegen took the rights to the Digedags with him and therefore new figures were needed. She designed the Mosaik booklets’ new heroes based on prototypes by Lothar Dräger - the three kobolds Abrax, Brabax and Califax were her breakthrough as a graphic artist.

The mission of coveying knowledge and cultural history through exciting pictorial tales remained. This explains the narrative vicinity of the Mosaik booklets to comic classics such as Tintin (Tim und Struppi) and Asterix, with which Rietschel, with a few exceptions, was not familiar. The stories were to be politically independent, and for this reason they were removed from the GRD both temporally and spatially. The heroes journeyed to the Middle Ages, to the turmoil of the French Revolution, or to the Chinese and Mongols in the Far East. She found inspiration for her drawings of far-off countries and cultures in numerous books as well as in secretly smuggled issues of National Geographic – she still has many years’ issues standing above her living-room sofa.

The Abrafaxe survive reunification

In 1991, following reunification, the Verlag Junge Welt was dissolved and the employees were registered as “close to the Party.” Even to this day, this across-the-board discrediting is still damaging to them, as they had never joined the SED. A marketing expert, Klaus D. Schleiter, prevented the end of the Mosaik booklets by securing the rights from the trustees and since then has published them through Verlag Mosaik Steinchen für Steinchen. Under his management, Rietschel continued to draw the Abrafaxe until 1999. She retired shortly before the 25th anniversary of her kobolds. Nonetheless, she cannot completely lay her pencil aside: she draws the title pages for the collected volumes.

But there is also bitterness mixed in with the conclusion of her career. Like Carl Barks, Lona Rietschel would like to sell some oil paintings with her kobolds. But since she drew the figures on commission as an employee, she does not have the copyrights to her figures. This is perfectly legal – but the “mother of the Abrafaxes” has the feeling that she has been robbed of her artistic children. Thus, in the end, this unique life in service of pictorial narrative has a tragic side as well.

Thomas Hummitzsch
is a free-lance author and writes among other things for the Tagesspiegel, Die Welt, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the taz. He operates the literary blog