Let’s talk about the Smurfs.
Wait, wait, come back! If, like me, all you knew about the little blue creatures was the 1980s Hanna-Barbera cartoon, or “Smurfs 2” (the animated movie currently out from Sony), you have the wrong idea about them.
For one thing, they’ve been around in Europe for a long time. They were created in 1958 in Belgium as supporting characters in a graphic-novel series called “Johan and Peewit,” a kind of Robin Hoodesque feature, by writer/artist Pierre Culliford (who goes by the nom de plume Peyo). “Les Schtroumphs,” as they were called in the original French, became so popular they spun off into their own graphic novels within a year.
And why were they so popular? Well, not to indoctrinate our children into being communists, as some right-wing, conspiracy-theorist websites have charged. But they were a lot more sophisticated than the dumbed-down U.S. cartoon would indicate, and at least one of their early graphic novels was anti-fascist — or, at the very least, anti-authoritarian.
I know all this now because of a publishing initiative called “The Smurfs Anthology,” by Papercutz, which is reprinting all Smurf stories in chronological order in hardback. The first volume has been released, and it’s an eye-opener.
The first solo Smurfs story should make today’s audiences sit bolt upright. In “The Purple Smurfs,” a dreaded Bzzz Fly stings a Smurf, who becomes purple, mindless and aggressive. That Smurf bites another Smurf, who also turns purple, and who goes about biting other Smurfs. Before long, most of the village has been transformed, as Papa Smurf searches desperately for a cure.
Sound familiar? Yep, it’s a zombie story in blue drag. In 1959! (One historical note: The original story was titled “Les Schtroumphs Noir,” and the affected Smurfs turned black. That is now considered racially insensitive, and the zombie Smurfs were bestowed a new color.)
Another story, “Le Schtroumpfissime” (“The Smurf King”), parodies the rise of Adolf Hitler, or perhaps Benito Mussolini, as Papa Smurf leaves town for a few days and the Smurfs hold an election for an interim leader, resulting in a democratically elected chief who quickly becomes a despot. Unlike real life, the Smurfs realize the error of their ways, and return to the benign tyranny of Papa Smurf. OK, that last part is me editorializing, but it does seem odd that a society ruled unquestioningly by a single person would find fascism so awful. I guess it was the throne, robes and castle that threw them off.
Still, the story demonstrates that, as originally presented, the Smurfs were more than the throwaway kiddie cartoon they have been in America. Another upscale aspect of the Smurfs is the art. I don’t know much about Peyo, but somehow or other he managed to learn to draw in a very Disneyesque manner. America’s comics were blessed for decades with a great many such artists, guys who worked at Disney during the Depression and emerged to draw humor comics like “Richie Rich,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Hot Stuff the Little Devil.” While I was never into kids’ comics — even as a kid — I did admire the artistry on display. Artists who got their training at Disney knew how to draw a cartoon shape consistently from any angle, and how to give it weight when it moved. They also knew how to draw a coherent world, where everything from cars to flowers showed a consistency of rendering. Peyo also does this, so “The Smurfs Anthology” is a beautifully drawn book as well.
Another story introduces the Smurfs’ archenemy, the incompetent wizard Gargamel, and his cat, Azrael, whose thought balloons indicate he considers Smurfs a tasty snack. The book also includes the “Johan” story where the Smurfs first appeared; Papercutz plans to reprint all the “Johan” stories with Smurfs in future volumes. Plus, there are essays and introductions, many of which are Smurftastic.
Oops, sorry — that just slipped out. Despite their sophistication, these stories are definitely for kids, and the Smurfs’ tendency to substitute the word “Smurf” randomly in their sentences may be amusing to children but can be irritating for adults. You’ve been warned.
And there’s more! “The Smurfs Anthology” is just part of what Papercutz is calling “The Summer of Peyo.” For example, the 15th digest-size graphic novel, reprinting “The Smurflings” and three other stories, is out. And Papercutz is launching a reprint series for another of Peyo’s long-running features with the advent of “Benny Breakiron Volume 1: The Red Taxis.” Benny is a little French boy with, essentially, Superman’s superpowers, but suffers from being a bit clumsy and awkward. The result is that, while well-meaning, Benny often creates a lot of misunderstandings — and random destruction. This series began in 1962, so there’s undoubtedly a lot of material waiting its turn to get published in the U.S. if the first book succeeds.
I’ll bet you’re glad now you stuck around. It wasn’t as Smurf as you thought, was it?
Contact Captain Comics at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more comics news, reviews and interviews go to his website, captaincomics.ning.com.