Friday, March 18, 2005

In Defense of Smurfs...

While here in the US, the Smurfs are primarily remembered as one of the nadirs of 80s pop kitsch, in their home country of Belgium, both they and their creator, Pierre Culliford (Peyo), are still highly revered. Peyo's Schtroumpfs remain one of the most enduring of Belgium's many bandes dessinées creations, and certainly one of the very few outside Herge's Tintin to gain international fame. While I may not be as fond of Peyo's somewhat stiff and simplistic drawing style as I am of the styles of compatriots like Franquin and Tilleux, his abilities as a storyteller ranked him among the best in his field.

Peyo's Smurf books were well-crafted and very funny little social satires, acted out within the confines of the tiny, essentially communistic Smurf village. Only three Smurfs seemed to have unique personalities; Jokey (the anarchist), Papa (the village patriarch/wiseman), and Brainy (the self-defeating, knowitall underdog). The rest were interchangable "everymen", peaceable but prone to mob mentality in times of crisis. Le schtroumpfissime remains one of Peyo's best stories, showing the rise of despotism in the village when Papa Smurf temporarily leaves. The more-or-less identical Smurfs split into ideological factions and a civil war breaks out. Another story concerned the rise of mass-communications in the village when strange vines grow that act as both a phone system and fiber-optic cables for television signals. The fundamental equality of their social order is broken as some Smurfs become egotistical, demanding celebrities. Papa Smurf destroys the vine and restores the peace. The most frightening of Peyo's stories, Les Schtroumpfs noirs, was about a transmittable disease spread by infected Smurfs biting others on the tail (rather Freudian). The disease turns the Smurfs into black, feral, hopping "G'naps". Nearly the entire village, including Papa Smurf, succumbs to the disease before a cure is accidentally found. The climax is like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers for kids! Peyo's last story before his death in 1992 was Le Schtroumpf financier, a satire on the unequal distribution of wealth.

Hanna-Barbera used Peyo's books as the basis for the first season of the TV series, cutting down feature-length stories to fit in a Saturday Morning timeslot and stripping them of their political subtext when possible. After they drained Peyo's backlog of stories dry, Hanna-Barbera formulized the show (making the evil wizard Gargamel the Coyote to the Smurfs' Roadrunner) and introduced a lot of distinct, merchandisable non-Peyo Smurf characters, which rather defeated the whole point of the concept. Peyo may have made a fortune thanks to H-B and the international merchandising frenzy triggered by the TV series, but Hanna-Barbera's mediocre cartoons have clouded his reputation as a brilliant satirist and storyteller, at least in America.


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