Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford, known by his pen name Peyo, was a staff artist on the weekly children's comic Spirou in 1958 when he introduced the little blue Smurfs into his medieval strip Johan & Peewit. By the following year, Les Schtroumpfs, as they were called in French, had their own strip.
The story, often repeated by Peyo's son, is that his father was enjoying a family meal with a fellow cartoonist when, momentarily forgetting the word for salt, he asked him to pass the "schtroumpf." They began jokingly speaking a language in which nouns and verbs could be replaced by this nonsense word, giving rise to the Smurfs' habit of talking Smurf. .
The Smurfs' eye-catching blue bodies, their simple adventures overcoming the dastardly wizard Gargamel and the cheery values of their village in the forest - friendship, co-operation and a love of nature - made them a staple for European kids from the '60s to the '80s. They became well known in North America after NBC aired an animated series in the early 1980s.
Culliford died in 1992 at age 64.
In the 1960s, the Schtroumpfs became the stars of their own hardcover comic albums, were translated into English, Dutch and German, and appeared as cartoons on Belgian television. Peyo worked on that animation and on the Smurfs' first feature-length appearance, the 1975 film La flute à six schtroumpfs ( The Smurfs and the Magic Flute), but it was not until Hanna-Barbera created the English-language cartoons that the Smurfs really solidified their reputation as animated characters.
Like Disney's Seven Dwarfs multiplied many times, the original comic-book Smurfs were 99 characters, each named for a profession or a trait - Grouchy, Clumsy, Baker, Farmer - and thus providing a perfect merchandising opportunity. Since the 1960s, the German toy-maker Schleich has created an ever-expanding series of small plastic Smurf figurines that currently includes more than 75 characters. Today, Studio Peyo says it was the popularity of these collectables that actually inspired NBC to commission the cartoons.
The Smurfs have now been catapulted out of their magical Euro setting, across the Atlantic and into the New World, hitting the ground in Manhattan for their latest adventure, a 3-D live action/animated feature from Sony Pictures.
The wicked Gargamel (Hank Azaria in the flesh) has finally succeeded in chasing the animated Smurfs from their village, so why is he now pursuing them through the Big Apple? Probably because Hollywood screenwriters needed a plot. A sweet but bewildered New York couple (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays) find themselves recruited to help the little blue guys back to Smurfland. The Smurfs' animated cast features many of the old favourites, including Papa Smurf, Brainy Smurf and Smurfette, voiced by Katy Perry. The one new Smurf is a guy called Gutsy, a foolhardy type with a kilt and a Scottish accent provided by Alan Cumming. What, no Belgian stereotypes to be had?
The Parisian academic Antoine Buéno published his own little blue book last month: Le Petit Livre bleu is a contemporary political analysis of the Smurfs that points to totalitarian, racist, anti-Semitic and sexist themes in the comics. Buéno suggests their happy society of indistinguishable characters who all answer to an all-wise bearded leader dressed in red (Papa Smurf; known in French as le Grand Schtroumpf) resembles a socialist utopia lead by a dictator. With his black hair, hooked nose, obsession with gold and cat named Azrael, the evil wizard Gargamel is an anti-Semitic stereotype, he argues.
Meanwhile, a 1963 comic in which a Smurf who is bitten by a fly turns black, becomes nastily aggressive and stupidly monosyllabic, and then infects his fellow Smurfs with the same disease surely reflects racist-colonial fears of the other.
Buéno has told interviewers that he is a lifelong Smurf fan now engaging with them in a more adult way. He isn't the first to read darker meaning into the Smurfs' world - those black Smurfs became purple for the U.S. cartoons - but in France his tongue-in-cheek analysis has prompted outraged defence of childhood literature as a realm free of any symbolism.
For many years the only female character in the land of the Smurfs, Smurfette is blond, with exaggerated eyelashes and a cocked-hip posture. She is often shown carrying a flower and, in animated versions whether in English or in French, she speaks in a high, squeaky voice. While Buéno's political and racial analysis may require a leap of the imagination, it is not hard to agree with francophone critics who see sexism in the Smurfs' happy village.
Smurfette was originally created by Gargamel to sow dissension in Smurf ranks. The wizard, apparently unaware of Western norms of beauty, made the mistake of giving his disruptive creation a big nose and black hair. He was foiled by Papa Smurf who magically transformed Smurfette, making her snub-nosed, blond and benignly flirtatious. Still, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, Smurfette remains a temptress - and oddly introduces gender into the stories by revealing that all those androgynous little blue creatures are actually male.
In French-speaking Europe, Schtroumpfette has become occasional slang for girl, girlfriend or chick, while speculation on the Smurfs' sexuality is a source of dirty jokes.
The French auction house Artcurial is currently holding an exhibition of Peyo's work in its headquarters in the Hôtel Marcel Dassault on the Champs Elysée in Paris. The show features 150 works from several series, including various early examples of his Smurf drawings. The characters' very first appearance is merely as a pair of eyes peaking out from a bush; their first bodies were a little more elfin and less rounded than the bulbous characters they became. Still, from the start they featured the distinctively floppy Phrygian caps (they grew up in a pseudo-medieval setting, after all) and those white pyjama-bottoms covering both legs and feet. The exhibition continues to Aug. 30.