Although only three apples high, the Smurfs dominated North American pop culture in the 1980’s. After a pair of successful animated specials by Hanna-Barbera in 1982, The little blue creatures hit Saturday mornings in 1984 and steamrolled the American cultural landscape with a plethora of merchandise. Theme parks had attractions devoted to them, the Macy Thanksgiving Parade created a Smurf balloon, the Ice Capades brought us “Smurfs on Ice” and rival companies tried to imitated them (anybody remember Snorks?). Love them or hate them, there was no escaping the Smurfs. However, just as quickly as they came, by the end of the decade the Smurfs quietly slipped back into the magical forest as the children who adored them grew up and put their Smurfs toys away, and the next generation of children turned to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles instead. For twenty years the Smurfs existed in only the faint memories alongside Pac-Man, the Rubicks Cube and Mr. T. Now, just like other 80’s franchises such GI Joe and The Transformers, the Smurfs are back! Slated to return to the big screen for the summer of 2011, toy manufacturers are already jumping on board to try to entice the current generation with the smiling blue creatures. This month Papercutz, a division of NBM publishing that produces family friendly graphic novels, have joined the trend by releasing reprints of a selection of Belgium cartoonist Peyo’s original Smurf comic stories from 1958 and 1959. Collected in two volumes, this is the first time that the Smurf comics have been available in English since the mid-1980’s and is a real treat for both fans and comic historians.
What the casual pop culture fan normally doesn’t realize is that the Smurfs were originally comic characters that hit Europe by storm in 1958, nearly twenty-five years before they found their way over to American shores. In fact, before the 1980’s North American Smurf craze, the Smurfs had appeared in a pair of European animated films, had been the subject of a series of songs by Belgian folk singer Father Abraham and had been a mainstay of central European merchandising since the end of the 1950’s. To put it in perspective, in the world of comics, the Smurfs pre-date the Justice League of America and the entire Marvel Age of comics! However, due to lack of distribution in North America, the Smurfs remain thought of as a television commodity while the original comics have wallowed in obscurity.
In terms of the Smurfs creation, their popularity was something that surprised everyone, including their creator. The creation and success of Peyo’s Smurfs was much like Al Capp’s Schmoo from the Lil’ Abner strip; magical creatures that were introduced in a regular comic strip, but grew so enormous in popularity that an entire industry was created around theme. In the case of the Smurfs, they were eventually spun off into their own successful comic strip. The Smurfs originally appeared in the long running comic strip Johan and Pewit which Peyo had initially developed for Belgium newspapers in 1947, but was moved to the popular Belgium comic magazine Spirou in 1952. The story of a young knight and his mischievous squire, Peyo’s comical look at sword and sorcery in a medieval backdrop became a mainstay in Belgium and for a while rivaled Herge’s Tintin in popularity. However, Peyo would find unexpected success when in 1958, during a Johan and Pewitt adventure titled The Magic Flute, Peyo introduced a small little race of blue creatures that had an odd way of talking who assisted Johan and Pewit in search for the enchanted instrument. This, of course, was the Smurfs.
In their initial appearances none of the Smurfs had any distinctive identification marks, making them nothing more then clone copies of each other. The joke was that they could tell each other apart even though humans couldn’t. The only exception was the head Smurf, dressed in red and sporting a white beard who was, of course, Papa Smurf. The audience response for the Smurfs was so overwhelming that Peyo brought the creatures back a number of times in Johan and Pewit and eventually, in 1959, due to popular demand, the Smurfs appeared in their first solo story titled The Black Smurfs, which until the current Papercutz presentation, has never been translated for the North America audience.
The Black Smurfs tells the story about a Smurf who is infected by an insect bite, turning him into a hostile black Smurf that hops around saying “Gnap” and biting, thus infecting other Smurfs. As the Smurfs attempt in vain to isolate the infected Smurfs, Papa Smurf attempts to find a cure for the epidemic. However, as the Smurf population’s number dwindles, the Smurfs finally are forced to go to war with the infected Smurfs in an attempt to save their smufmanity. Although a tale that remains both suspenseful and whimsical, the introductory Smurf story was passed over by publishers in the politically correct era of the 1980’s in fear that Peyo’s original story between heroic blue Smurfs and evil black Smurfs would be seen as a metaphor for racial wars. Oddly enough, Hanna-Barbera sought to turn the story into an episode of the weekly Smurf cartoon, and with Peyo’s permission, they recolored the infected Smurfs purple instead of black. Thus, in recognition of this change, Papercutz has done the same by publishing the first Smurf story as The Purple Smurfs. Other then the color change, the story remains the same as Peyo’s original story and, for the first time, can be enjoyed by the North American audience.
Although the Smurfs became a massive world wide success and earned Peyo both fame and fortune, Peyo’s primary interest was in Johan and Pewit which he wrote and drew into the 1980’s Peyo’s Smurf stories appeared more sporadically and Peyo completed only a total of sixteen Smurf comic stories between 1958 and his death in 1992. Following his death a team of creators lead by Peyo’s son Terry wrote and drew an additional eleven stories. In all 27 Smurf stories have been published between 1958 and 2010.
Papercutz representation of these original Smurf stories are a unique gift to comic fans. The first volume, The Purple Smurfs, collects Peyo’s first, third and fourth Smurf story, skipping The Smurfnapper which introduced villains Gargamal and Azreal into the comics, due to having already published the story in a poorly distributed book for Free Comic Day. However, a note from Papercutz editor-in-chief Jim Salicrup in the first volume promises that the story will be included in a future Smurf graphic novel. The second volume, The Magic Flute, collects the first appearances of the Smurfs in the Johan and Pewit comic and is an interesting look at Peyo’s original comic strip, as well as the one that brought him the most satisfaction during his career. This fall a third collection of Peyo’s Smurf comics, The Smurf King, is due to be published by Papercutz and, hopefully, more will follow leading up the Smurf feature film in 2011. At a remarkable low price of $5.99, Papercutz’s Smurf graphic novels are incredibly affordable and provide a rare look at the original source material of one of the world’s most successful franchises and is an affordable way to discover the original Smurf comics for the first time