Smurfing with Peyo

Posted by on February 2nd, 2011 at 12:01 AM

We are threatened again with an invasion of Smurfs as Papercutz brings out the first three volumes reprinting Belgian cartoonist Peyo’s 1958 creations. These books herald the arrival this coming summer of a Smurf movie, the first such manifestation since the 1980s. And as part of the general publicity campaign to raise public awareness and pave the way to box-office success, tiny blue figurines are proliferating on the toy shelves in Target and Wal-Mart and elsewhere, wherever promotion thrives. I’m glad to see the Smurfs again: Not only are they charming cartoon confections, they also remind me of gladsome moments in my sea-faring days.

When I first encountered the Smurfs, they were called Schtroumpfs, and I met them in Marseilles in the winter of 1961-62. The horizon seaward was spiked by the tower of the famed Chateau d’If, the island fortress prison from which Edmond Dantes escaped in a canvas wrap to become the Count of Monte Cristo. Otherwise, Marseilles was a colorless port, a dull gray business-like sort of place compared to our more frequent port of call, the frivolous sunny recreational Cannes with its white-sand beach, bikinis, storied Carlton Hotel, and palm-lined Boulevard de la Croisette. But we went ashore whenever we could anyhow, regardless of the clime or ambiance. A drink’s a drink for a’that, Robbie.

One day when wandering lonely as a cloud along the drab Marseilles waterfront, I came to a bookshop on a side-street corner. In contrast to neighboring windowless stores, which sealed themselves up against the impertinence of the prying eyes of passers-by, the bookshop’s outward walls were all window, and the lighted interior made the place glow warmly, beckoning rather than foreboding in that otherwise gray neighborhood under equally gray skies. I don’t speak or read French very well, but I could tell it was a bookshop: looking in through the window, I saw little else but books. So I went in.

Among the books I carted off were several bound volumes (“albums”) of the youth magazine Spirou, which serialized comic strips. And among the comic strips was one that recorded in cartoony fashion the medieval adventures of Johan and his pint-sized cohort, Pirlouit. It was while perusing this strip that I first beheld the miniature blue woodland Schtroumpfs.

If the strip had been drawn in a realistic manner, the presence of the Schtroumpfs would have fractured the aura of authenticity, but Johan and Pirlouit and their friends and foes were rendered as cartoon characters, not real people, and so the Schtroumpfs did no violence to the ambiance of the strip. These dwarfies with their cone-shaped hats (known as Phrygian caps) multiplied in the pages of Spirou, showing up on game pages and in a mini-comic-book bound in the middle of some issues. (Pull out the pages and fold them twice, making tiny 4×6-inch booklets — miniature comic books of miniature people.) Years afterward, the tiny happily contented trolls immigrated to these shores, and they were called Smurfs; they proliferated briefly and then seemed to fade away. Or perhaps my attention was simply diverted elsewhere.

The Smurfs were animated in movies and on TV, but never showed up in print, it seemed to me. In print, they existed only in my memory of those pages of the albums now stowed safely away in the subterranean depths of the Rancid Raves Book Grotto. So when Jim Salicrup, editor-in-chief at Papercutz, sent me copies of two of its newest series, I was all eyes and rejoiced: Here, at last, were the Schtroumpfs in print where I could watch them for long intervals, at leisure, rather than trying to appreciate their antics as they flickered too quickly by in their animated incarnations.

The second book in the series, which appeared in my mailbox with the inaugural volume, rehearses the origin of the blue imps in Johan and Pirlouit. Finally, the mystery of how they insinuated themselves into the strip is solved! But it merely whetted my appetite to know more about the characters and their creator, who signed his work “Peyo.” So I looked him up in the Google caverns. You can do the same; but here are the high points of what you’ll find.

BORN IN 1928 IN BRUSSELS, Belgium, to an English stockbroker father and a Belgian mother, Pierre Culliford found his pen name in the utterances of a juvenile English cousin, who had trouble pronouncing his French nickname, Pierrot, which kept coming out “Peyo.” Peyo quit school at 16 and took a job as a projectionist’s assistant in a movie theater. He also briefly attended the Fine Arts Academy in Brussels but, according to encyclopedia.com, he is mostly self-taught.
At the conclusion of World War II, Peyo joined a graphic-art studio, CBA (Compagnie Belge d’Animation), where he became an apprentice animator and met other young cartoonists who would eventually become household words — Andre Franquin, Morris and Eddy Paape. When CBA went bankrupt, Peyo freelanced to ad agencies and sold comic strips to newspapers. One strip featured a Native American named Pied-Tendre (Tenderfoot) and his diminutive scout Puce (Flea); another regaled readers with the adventures of a young page in medieval times, a blond kid named Johan.

By 1949, Peyo was producing comics for the Le Soir newspaper — Johan and a strip about a cat named Poussy — but his career goal at the time was to get published in Le Journal de Spirou, a highly popular weekly comics and stories magazine for young readers. It wasn’t until Franquin had made it to Spirou and could introduce Peyo to the magazine’s editors that Peyo had his chance. He reworked Johan, changing the young hero’s blond hair to black, and in 1952, Peyo and Johan made their debut in Spirou.

Spirou was one of several comics or youth magazines that flourished in the last part of the 1930s in the wake of the success of Le Journal de Mickey and the weekly adventures of Herge’s Tintin in Le Petit Vingtieme. First published April 21, 1938 by Jean Dupuis, who put the operation in the hands of his sons Paul and Charles, the magazine was named after the title character in its lead comic strip. Spirou (a word meaning “squirrel” or “lively mischievous kid” in Walloon, the dialect of French-speaking people of Celtic descent in southern Belgium) was initially a young elevator operator in the Moustique Hotel (an allusion to Dupuis flagship publication, Le Moustique), and he wore his red bellman’s uniform for most of his life, much of which was spent adventuring in a comedic mode. In his early adventures, Spirou was accompanied by his pet squirrel, Spip, who joined the bellhop on June 8, 1939. Subsequently, in 1944, the strip’s cartoonist, Joseph Gillain, known as Jije, introduced a human cohort, Fantasio. In 1946, Jije turned the strip over to his new assistant, Franquin, who produced the strip for the next 23 years and is considered its definitive author.

Franquin wrote longer more complex stories and introduced a gallery of recurring secondary characters, and his supple brush and lively renderings gave the strip its distinctive carefree look and established Jije’s style of drawing as the chief rival to the Herge school’s ligne claire (clear line) technique. Jije’s manner, subsequently dubbed the “Marcinelle school” after the town in which Spirou’s offices were located, is action-oriented, pulsing with vivid movement, while Herge’s style is more static, atmospheric more than energetic; Franquin’s line is flexible, vibrant with movement, and Herge’s is staid, descriptive rather than emotive. By 1952, Franquin had so firmly established himself with Dupuis as master of the magazine’s title strip that when he brought Peyo around to meet the editors, it was akin to offering Peyo a position.

Johan was successful enough almost from the start, but when, in 1954, Peyo gave Johan a diminutive sidekick, the exuberant but bumbling Pirlouit (in English, Peewit, pronounced “Peewee”), the strip became one of Spirou’s most popular features. But it was the arrival of the Schtroumpfs that made Peyo’s fortune.

IN OCTOBER 1958, JOHAN AND PEEWIT find a magic flute only to have it stolen. In pursuit of the thief, they encounter a tribe of blue dwarfs living contentedly in colorful mushroom houses in the forest.

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It’s this story that Papercutz has reprinted in the second of its two inaugural Smurf books. Peyo intended the Schtroumpfs (just “three apples high,” he specified) to disappear after this adventure, but they proved so popular that he brought them back again and again in their own strips, which were published at first as those miniature comic books I saw bound into Spirou. It was obvious that Peyo was no good at prognostication: he once said about the Schtroumpfs, “three years from now, no one will talk about them any more.” He didn’t foresee Pirlouit’s popularity either.

The Schtroumpfs were blue, it is said, because Peyo believed children liked the color. The origin of the name is a Peyo legend. The story is that Peyo and Franquin were having dinner together at a restaurant one evening, and one of them (which is still a mystery), instead of saying, “Pass the salt” said “Pass the schtroumpf.” This hilarious scrap of nonsense gave Peyo both the generic name of his miniature blue trolls and, at the same time, one of the feature’s most popular aspects with young readers. A distinction of the Schtroumpf language is that “Schtroumpf” can be substituted for any noun or verb at the whim of the speaker — at the schtroumpf of the speaker, one might say.

The basic appeal of the Schtroumpfs resides largely in their appearance. With tiny bodies and heads of an equal size, stubby tails and bulbous noses, and funny stocking caps, the Schtroumpfs are simply cute as all get-out. Peyo’s storytelling displays cartooning’s craftsmanship at its height: He deploys the resources of the medium to meet the demands of his story with polish and panache.

All the action is pictured from the same perspective, which accents and sustains our awareness of the Schtroumpfs’ small size. While Peyo blends words into his pictures, much of any story, particularly the comedic element, is conveyed mostly through the pictures: The humor is consistently more visual than verbal, much as it would be in an animated cartoon — as if Peyo had brought with him to comic strips his early experience in animation. Which he undoubtedly did.

Except for Papa Schtroumpf (and, later, King Schtroumpf and the Schtroumphette), these blue mites are not individualized; they are unnamed members of a tribe. Sometimes in a given story, if a prankster is called for, one of the cast will be called Joker Schtroumpf; but usually, they go about their business without names. And the business is wholly unspecified. They all live happily in a mushroom village in the woods, but what they do for a living is anyone’s guess. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter; cuteness is the Schtroumpfs stock in trade, and that’s all they need to be. And they can’t be as cute in any medium other than a cartooning medium, comics or animated cartoons.

IN 1960, PEYO concocted another strip, Benoit Brisefer (called Steven Strong in English), about a small boy with superhuman strength which he loses whenever he gets a cold, and, later, yet another, Jacky et Celestin, but Peyo soon gave up cartooning in order to supervise the burgeoning Schtroumpf empire. To meet the demand for the characters, Peyo established a studio. The merchandising of the Schtroumpfs began almost at once, and animated films soon followed — first in France, then elsewhere.

In the U.S., Hanna-Barbera produced a Saturday morning Smurf series that ran from 1981 to 1989, and is in reruns now. Altogether, the Smurfs appeared in more than 400 animated films. In print, Smurf albums (17 of them) have appeared in 25 languages (Johan and Peewit rank next with 13 albums but fewer languages). The Ice Capades included a Smurf routine for a season, and a Smurf theme park opened in Metz, France, in 1981, but it failed and was absorbed by a Six Flags production.
The editor of Spirou, Yvan Delporte — who assumed the chair in 1955 when Charles Dupuis relinquished it in order to devote attention to albums — was frequently Peyo’s collaborator, writing many of the Schtroumpf stories, but Peyo maintained control and thereby the quality of the work. Said he: “I refuse to entrust my business to professionals who would either sell me a bill of goods or neglect the quality for a larger profit. And on no account will I accept that. I want to supervise everything so that my little characters stay attractive and the same as they’ve always been.”

Peyo died on Christmas Eve, 1992, but his studio continues to produce material over his name. His son Thierry Culliford, who assumed leadership in the studio in the 1960s, is, I assume, the guardian of Peyo quality today. The Papercutz series, up to three titles at the moment, is not likely to fall short of the standard Peyo set: their page size (6×9 inches) is smaller than the traditional album’s 9×12 inches; but the pages are exact reproductions of the original printings, and the tidier size reflects the dimension of the Smurf world without sacrificing any of the clarity of the imagery.

IN ADDITION TO THE SMURFS AND THE MAGIC FLUTE, which rehearses the origin of the Smurfs in Johan and Peewit, the first volume in the Papercutz series, The Purple Smurfs, is available, and in December, the third tome, The Smurf King. Except the Flute, which is 64 pages, the others are 56 pages, full color; all are $5.99 in paperback, $10.99 in hardback. Incidentally, The Purple Smurfs was initially entitled The Black Smurfs and it’s never been published in English before, said Salicrup.

“The reason is that there was a concern that the story would be misinterpreted and be found offensive to African-Americans,” he explained. “While we believe that there is nothing at all racist about the story, we can see how the story could very easily be taken the wrong way, especially by children.” So Papercutz adopted Hanna-Barbera’s solution when the studio adapted the story to animation: “We simply changed the black smurfs to purple smurfs,” said Salicrup.

Salicrup and his partner Terry Nantier, founder and president of NBM Publishing, pursued the rights for the Smurfs for years. “It took so long because two movie studios were involved for some time, making the rights issue a little confusing,” Salicrup told me. “Once we announced that we got the rights, Adam Grano, a designer at Fantagraphics, posted online an open letter to Terry, explaining why he should design the Smurf books for us, and we were delighted to work with him. I can’t tell you how happy and proud Terry and I are to be publishing The Smurfs: it’s exactly the type of comics we hoped we could publish when we first started Papercutz. We both think that these comics are classics, and should remain in print, just as the Tintin comics have always been available in North America. We simply think that The Smurfs are great comics for all ages.”

A concern for how youngsters might interpret The Purple Smurfs is natural for Papercutz, which was established in 2005 by Nantier and Papercutz co-owner Salicrup to provide graphic novels of interest particularly to tweens and teens, ages 8-14. But the Smurf stories I’ve seen so far are sagas for all-ages, and the artwork, a delicious mixture of bigfoot and “little foot,” deploying a Disneyesque passion for visual detail in settings and backgrounds.

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One Response to “Smurfing with Peyo”

  1. [...] Journal put together an essay on The Smurfs and their creator, Peyo. You can read the article here. It’s great if you’ve ever wondered where these little blue guys came from and how [...]