Belgian cartoonist Peyo (1928-1992) created a variety of characters over his long career. But only one group became internationally famous: the Smurfs, who were known as the Schtroumpfs in the Frenchlanguage comics in which they originally appeared.
The Smurfs—contented blue trolls who live inside mushroom-shaped houses in the forest—have had an irresistible appeal to children that transcended cultural boundaries. The printed comics have appeared in 25 languages to date and have served as the basis for a phenomenally popular animated children's television series, television specials, an animated film, and a seemingly omnipresent line of merchandise. Various explanations have been proposed for the Smurfs' success, but one factor certainly worked in Peyo's favor: he maintained control over the Smurfs even after their name became a household word. “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,” he explained in an interview in Cahiers de la Bande Dessinée (as quoted in Contemporary Authors). “I want to supervise everything so that my little characters stay attractive and the same as they've always been.”
Worked in Projection Booth
Peyo's real name was Pierre Culliford. Born in Brussels, Belgium, on June 25, 1928, he was the son of an English stockbroker father and a Belgian mother. He never learned to speak English well, however, and one of his English cousins likewise had trouble with his French nickname Pierrot, pronouncing it Peyo (with the accent on the second syllable). When he began to do small humorous drawings, he took that name as a pseudonym. Peyo quit school at age 16 and got a job as a projectionist's assistant in a movie theater. He attended the Fine Arts Academy in Brussels for a short time as a teen, but otherwise he was completely self-taught.
For several reasons, at the end of World War II Belgium was a hotbed of comic art: the Tintin series of the artist Hergé (Georges Remi) had shown that Belgian artists could gain international popularity, and a vacuum in the production of comics had been created by a ban on American comics during the German occupation of the country. Peyo quickly found employment as an illustrator at a graphic art studio called CBA, and while he was there, he worked on an animated film called Un cadeau àlafée and drew some imp-like figures that resembled the future Smurfs. Unfortunately the company went bankrupt, and Peyo was forced to scramble for art-related work amid the shortages and privations of postwar Europe. He painted lampshades for a time and did illustration and design work for advertising agencies, learning the principles of design as he went.
Peyo continued to draw comic strips and graphic stories, and beginning in 1946, he succeeded in getting some of them published in Brussels newspapers. He created a Native American named Pied-Tendre (Tenderfoot) and his scout Puce (Flea); some of their adventures were published in a supplement to the newspaper called L'Occident. Other papers issued adventure strips by Peyo, and one of them, La Dernière Heure, published a small Peyo feature about a blond-haired boy in medieval times, a page, named Johan. In 1949 Johan moved to the major Le Soir newspaper, to which Peyo also contributed a humorous strip about a kitten named Poussy.
Peyo's aim at the time was to get his foot in the door at the graphic-arts weekly Spirou (then Le Journal de Spirou, one of Belgium's most popular youth magazines. He did manage to sell a cover illustration to Moustique, another magazine issued by Spirou's publisher Dupuis, but his efforts went nowhere until his friend and fellow cartoonist André Franquin, with whom he had worked at CBA, offered to introduce him to the firm's editors. Peyo diligently reworked some of his Johan comics, changing the page's hair from blond to black, and Johan made his debut in Spirou in 1952.
Added Second Character
The feature picked up steam two years later when Peyo added a bumbling but amusing sidekick named Pirlouit, and by the mid-1950s, under the title Johan et Pirlouit (Johan and Pirlouit), it was one of the magazine's most popular series. In 1958 (some sources indicate 1957, but the 1958 date comes from an account on the Web site of his publisher, Dupuis), Peyo created a Johan et Pirlouit episode called “La FlÛte à Six Trous” (The Flute with Six Holes), including a sequence in which Johan and Pirlouit encounter a group of diminutive beings called Schtroumpfs who lived peacefully in the forest. They were only intended to appear in that single episode, but readers reacted favorably enough that Peyo was encouraged to create other Schtroumpfs strips. At first they appeared in small inset panels that suited their small size, but soon they graduated to full-size graphics, and Peyo once again carefully rethought his drawings for the new medium.
The name “Schtroumpf” came about (or at least is anecdotally said to have come about) when Peyo and Franquin were eating dinner in a restaurant, and one (it is unclear which one) said playfully “Passez-moi le schtroumpf” (pass me the smurf) instead of “Passez-mois le sel” (pass me the salt). The exchange gave Peyo the idea not only for the name of his tribe of blue imps, but also for one of the most prominent features of the way they talk: a trademark of Smurf language is that any noun or verb can be replaced with the word “smurf” according to the fancy of the speaker (who might say “let's smurf on over,” for example). The idea was guaranteed to catch the attention of youngsters whose vocabularies were growing and who were beginning to experiment with language, and soon it was clear that Peyo was way off the mark with his prediction, issued early in the Smurfs' run in Spirou (and quoted in the London Times) that “[t]hree years from now, no one will talk about them any more.” He had also failed to foresee Pirlouit's success.
The Smurfs were blue simply because Peyo believed children liked that color, and they were based loosely on the trolls who populate Norse folklore. They were, he said (as quoted in the Times), supposed to be “three apples high.” Peyo's popularity grew to a point where he was able to open a studio of his own, training younger comic artists in his methodical ways. A frequent Peyo collaborator was Yvan Delporte, the editor of Spirou. Peyo continued to draw the Poussy strips, and in 1960 he introduced a new Dupuis series, Benoî Brisefer, about a little boy who has superhuman powers—except when he has a cold. He also created a new strip for Le Soir called Jacky et Célestin.
Both comics continued to appear through the 1960s and 1970s and spawned their own series of books, but it was the Smurfs that defined Peyo and eventually made him a millionaire. Sometimes he lamented how they had overshadowed his other creations, but he remained involved in producing new Smurf materials until his death. The Schtroumpfs began to appear in the large-format hardback books beloved by European families; two of the initial releases, Les Schtroumpfs noirs (The Black Smurfs), and Histoires Schtroumpfs, appeared in 1964. They were followed by Le Schtroumpfissime (which appeared in English as The Smurf King) in 1965 and La Schtroumpfette in 1967. That book introduced Smurfette, the only adult female in the Smurf community.
Adapted into Animated Film Versions
An animated French-language Smurf film had a limited release in Belgium in the mid-1960s, and a group of 13-millimeter Smurf short subjects followed. But the real transformation of the Smurfs from graphic art into multimedia extravaganza began with the 1975 film La FlÛte à Six Schtroumpfs (The Flute with Six Smurfs), with a score by the dean of French film-music composers, Michel Legrand (who also lent his voice to Smurf characters occasionally). The film was adapted from the Johan et Pirlouit episode that had introduced the Smurfs originally. It was released in the United States in 1983 as The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, and several Smurf film sequels followed in the wake of its success.
By that time, the Smurfs were a household word in the United States. Stuart R. Ross, who produced The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, had secured the U.S. rights to the Smurfs after encountering them on a trip to Belgium, and the Hanna-Barbera animation studio developed a Saturday morning cartoon for the NBC television network after executive Fred Silverman had seen his daughter playing with a Smurf doll (Smurf merchandise was originally imported into the U.S. in advance of the cartoons themselves) and concluded that the Smurfs were a potential hit. The Smurfs made their debut on NBC in 1981 and ran until 1989. They spawned a merchandise line that grew to include clothing, toys, records and compact discs, and various novelty items. A Smurf routine was developed as part of the Ice Capades family skating spectacular. One of the few Smurf-related ventures that failed was a Smurf theme park in Metz, France, that opened in 1981 but was later absorbed by the Six Flags amusement park empire.
The Smurfs were not sharply differentiated from one another, and all of them, with the exception of Smurfette, wore a cone-shaped hat known as a Phrygian cap. They had names like Lazy Smurf that referred to their individual characteristics or sometimes to the kind of work they did, and new Smurfs could be created as needed. Tension in the Smurf universe came from the machinations of Gargamel, a wizard who wants to eat the Smurfs, and his cat Azrael. The vaguely collective nature of Smurf society has occasionally given rise to theories that Peyo intended the series as an allegory with Communist leanings, but evidence for such ideas is slender.
By the early 1990s the Smurfs had appeared in numerous foreign languages other than English, on the way to an eventual total of 25 or more that included Hebrew, Indonesian, and Chinese, in which they were called Ling Shin Ling. The word “smurf,” which had been used in Dutch before it was adopted for English-language versions, was retained for many languages in which it sounded euphonious, but the Smurfs became Cumafu in Japanese, Dardassim in Hebrew, and Puffi in Italian. Peyo had help toward the end of his life in managing his worldwide Smurf empire: he and his wife, Nine (whom he married in 1951), raised two children, Thierry and Véronique, and Thierry increasingly took part in managing the family business. Thierry continued to supervise the development of new Smurf enterprises after his father's death in Brussels on December 24, 1992. As of the mid-2000s enthusiasm for the Smurfs showed little sign of abating; a cinematic Smurf trilogy was slated for release in 2008.
New York Times, December 25, 1992.
Times (London, England), January 2, 1993.
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