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Comical escape

April 7, 2009

They've been goofing around in futuristic cities and ancient Rome for over 50 years. Now the Mosaik comic characters, who provided imaginary escape to many in communist East Germany, are celebrating their 400th edition.

Abrafaxe comic characters
The Abrafaxe characters embarked on adventures that were off limits for their readersImage: picture-alliance/ZB

For many, the comic characters Abrax, Brabax and Califax were East Germany's true heroes. While the readers of the beloved comic book series were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, the cast of Abrafaxe was off exploring distant lands.

Even before Abrafaxe, East German comic readers had the Digedags, which were created in the 1950s as a socialist response to Mickey Mouse, who was born in 1928 with the help of cartoonist Walt Disney.

In 1955, the first so-called "Mosaik" comic book hit the shelves: 32 pages printed in color on pulpy paper. The April 2009 edition was the comic's 400th.

With the Digedags, cartoonist Hannes Hegen had managed to create a real "people's" comic, which was nevertheless free of political doctrine and propaganda. Even today, the characters are well known across former East Germany, though most of their fans are now middle-aged men.

Vicarious antics

Walt Disney and a Mickey Mouse doll in 1935
Mickey Mouse had imitators on the other side of the Iron CurtainImage: AP

"We learned lots of scientific, historical and geographic things from the Mosaik comic books," one such older fan told Deutsche Welle. "The stories took place in many different locations, and a lot of Mosaik readers went to visit those places -- later on, when it became possible. Readers found out that the comics were very accurate."

There was no propaganda and none of the everyday grey of socialism. The Digedags were colorful, wild and full of imagination -- until 1975, when Hegen stopped drawing.

Shortly thereafter, the Abrafaxe characters appeared in the same magazine. They were wild too, but not quite as clever as their predecessors. They were also more pragmatic and didn't stray as far from the GDR party line.

Nonetheless, Abrax, Brabax and Califax became a success story because they struck a chord with the readers. They had what nearly every East German dreamed of: an exciting life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

"Looking back, I would say that I was practically in exile with the Digedags and the Mosaik comics," said Peter Lang, a former artistic director of the Bethanian art house in Berlin, comics expert and Mosaik collector. "As a kid, it wasn't really clear to me that they didn't have much to do with the world of the GDR."

No hidden agenda

The first edition of the Digedag comic book
Mosaik published the first Didedag comic book in 1955Image: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Part of the Mosaik comics' appeal came from characters who spoke without falling into the party propaganda found in other youth magazines.

"Mosaik wasn't an educational magazine, it wouldn't have been successful like that," said Lang. "It was an adventure through education, the history of technology and the history of science. And it was all combined with a lot of emotion and that's how you could remember things. You became part of that world."

In the mid-1970s, the comic had a circulation of 660,000 and it practically flew off the shelves.

Gigantic, intergalactic, utopian cities often featured in the storylines. Aerial railways and four-story intersections gave it a colorful, futuristic touch. But the Digedags also traveled back in time to cities like Rome and Venice, where they engaged in exciting slapstick adventures.

Cartoonist Hannes Hegen, born Johannes Hegenbarth, studied art in Vienna and Leipzig. At the age of 30, he drew his first Mosaik comic -- a visual representation of his dreams, as he would later say. Since he stopped drawing the comics, Hegen has withdrawn to a home in Berlin and no longer gives media interviews.

Landmark edition

To celebrate the 400th Mosaik comic this year, an exhibition on GDR comic figures is being planned in Brussels, the world comic capital.

According to the publisher, there are Mosaik readers and fans in over 15 countries, but the characters remain relatively unknown in western Germany.

Author: Christoph Richter / Kate Bowen

Editor: Sean Sinico