By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

 

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 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 Hood-esque 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 Disney-esque 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 Smurf Anthology is a beautifully drawn book as well.

 

Another story introduces the Smurfs’ arch-enemy, 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 Smurf Anthology is just part of what Papercutz is calling “The Summer of Peyo.” For example, the fifteenth 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 feature with the advent of Benny Breakiron Volume 1: The Red Taxis. Benny is a little French boy with, essentially, Superman’s super-powers, 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 capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 492

Comment by Michael R. Neno on July 10, 2013 at 2:08pm

I knew the European version of The Smurfs had to be smarter than the simplistic American version. Benny Breakiron Vol. 1 looks intriguing - would love to read a review of that.

Comment by Captain Comics on July 10, 2013 at 2:12pm

It's cute. Poor Benny tries to play with the neighbor kids, but they refuse, because he always breaks their toys. He tries to help a guy whose suitcase falls out of his car by chasing him at super-speed, and it all goes wrong. But then he runs into some real bad guys, and has to show some some smarts. It's never going to replace Superman, but it shows a wide range of storytelling, from humor to poignancy to adventure. Benny himself is a very likeable and sympathetic protagonist.

Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on July 10, 2013 at 8:10pm

No lie. I was JUST reading my latest Smurfs purchase -- the Smurfs and the Howlibird. 

I have been thoroughly impressed with every Smurf book I've picked up. These are a total joy to read, and its a terrible shame that everyone's view on these guys have been tainted by the cartoon (and the movie). The art is superb and the Smurf-laden dialogue can be really funny. (In the "Howlibird," one Smurf was running around nekkid, begging people to loan him a pair of pants. His desperate pleas were a great source of  aggravation to Papa Smurf.)

These books are so good, and often laugh-out-loud funny. I highly recommend "Smurfs and the Magic Flute," "The Purple Smurf" and "The Smurf Olympics." At $7, these are great entertainment.

Further, I would hazard to guess that the Smurfs comics would be an excellent way to get kids into reading a broader range of comics. They are a perfect stepping stone, and you're sure to enjoy them too.

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on July 11, 2013 at 11:31am

I saw the Smurfs book at my LCS and was intrigued by it. I will most definitely pick it up next week during their semi-annual sale.

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