In 1958, Pierre Culliford, better known as Peyo – a pen name he had coined after a cousin kept mispronouncing Pierrot, his French nickname – predicted that in “three years from now, no one will talk about them anymore.” He meant a set of comic characters he had created, after he had forgotten the word for salt and had asked for “schtroumpf” instead.
The Smurfs made their first appearance in Spirou magazine in 1958, as secondary characters in a Johan and Peewit series, set in the Middle Ages.
What Culliford smurfed up was a magical village of blue creatures three apples tall and each with one distinct characteristic. They sing and dance, have parties and live a happy life under the guidance of Papa Smurf, their wise old leader. They wear white caps that resemble Phrygian caps, an old symbol of freedom, and white pants – except for good ol’ Papa, who has red pants and a red cap. Then again, he has a white beard, which none of the other Smurfs have.
“Old sage men were important in the Middle Ages, and back then, they were thought to be able to mix magical potions and do other supernatural things,” says Philippe Glorieux, head of marketing and communications at IMPS, the Cullifords’ company that holds the rights to the Smurfs.
“Peyo was a magical storyteller and every story needs a villain. Gargamel is ugly and stupid, but also a little scary, but kids need to see the difference between the good and the bad, and that good will prevail,” Glorieux says.
What’s not to like? Well, Gargamel, of course. The Smurfs’ life was disrupted by the arrival of the evil wizard who kidnapped a Smurf and created a female brunette, Smurfette, whom Papa Smurf saved and smurfed into a blonde bombshell.
“Back in the 1960s, there weren’t many comic books, so fans were quick to interact with the editors and artists to give them feedback on what they wanted to see,” Glorieux says.
Their message was loud and clear – they wanted the Smurfs. Just like the Simpsons, who started out as interstitials on the Tracey Ullman Show 40 years later, the Schtroumpfs broke out and never looked back.
A few years later, they were renamed Smurfs to avoid confusion with “Strumpf,” the German word for “stocking,” but even as Smurfs the blue men replaced words with the word “smurf” when needed, just like their creator did.
By the time of Peyo’s death in 1992, the Smurfs had conquered the world. For example, in the US, the Saturday morning cartoons had ratings that rivaled – and sometimes topped – huge drama series, such as Dallas. The Smurf characters had been licensed to more than 2,000 companies, who, in turn, made dolls, toys, clothes, clocks and games for the fans. When Peyo died, Arne Vanleeuwe was just a one-year-old, but when he saw a Smurfs catalogue with all the figurines a few years later, he knew he had to have them. He now has a collection that includes 3,000–4,000 – Vanleeuwe isn’t exactly sure – as well as other Smurf collectibles.
“As any collector would tell you, you don’t stop until you have a complete collection. I’ve been at it for more than 18 years,” says Vanleeuwe who today works for Puppy, a company founded by Véronique Culliford to oversee the Smurf operations in the Benelux.
While Vanleeuwe is Belgian, just like Peyo, it wasn’t patriotism that got him hooked on the blue creatures.
“I just liked them, although it is fitting that they celebrate their 60th anniversary on 23 October, which is also my birthday.”
“The Smurfs are still relevant because their world reflects our society. The situations they find themselves in, we also experience in our daily lives. Everybody can find a Smurf they like and relate to,” he says.
Vanleeuwe says the Smurfs transcend the comic book world, and the fact that they aren’t human allows a degree of freedom other characters, such as Tintin, another Belgian comic book hero, don’t have.
“Tintin died with its creator, Herge, but Peyo’s biggest wish was that the Smurfs would live on, and they’re still as much as alive and magical today as they were the day he created them,” Vanleeuwe says.
Pierre Culliford’s son, Thierry, is the current holder of the Peyo pen name.
The Smurfs ooze with positivity, spread happiness and represent all things good. There’s no sex, drugs, religion or even rock’n’roll in the cartoons (although the Smurfs song collections, pop covers sung in a high-pitched smurfy voice, sold multi-platinum in, for example, Finland, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands).
“The Smurfs aren’t racists or religious and there’s no talk about drugs and sex – partly because they’re kid-friendly, but also because it would tarnish their image. This is one of the basic principles,” Vanleeuwe says.
However, over the years they have met criticism and not just from Gargamel. Is Papa Smurf a communist? He must be a dictator, though. Don’t Jokey’s jokes get old? And the most obvious one, why is there only one female Smurf?
“It’s sort of a public secret that Smurfette is based on Peyo’s daughter, Veronique, who also happens to be blonde,” Vanleeuwe says. “She’s so special, one of a kind, that everybody likes her.”
“Peyo wanted to have one princess in the story, and in 1966, he introduced Smurfette,” Glorieux adds.
Times change even in the Smurf village and in the 2017 movie – a follow-up to box-office successes Smurfs (2011) and Smurfs 2 (2013), all produced by Veronique – the gang discovers a whole village of female Smurfs.
“There’s still only one Smurfette, though,” says Vanleeuwe.
Another challenge came with Peyo’s invention of a group of black Smurfs who were aggressive because they were bitten by an insect, which elicited accusations of racism – not at all smurfy. According to Vanleeuwe, the choice of color in this case mirrored a similar issue right at the beginning.
“Peyo had the same problem then, because if you mix blue with other colors, they’d be green or brown or black. It had nothing to do with racism. But in the US, the black Smurfs were painted purple.”
These are busy times for the Smurfs. Last year, they were unveiled as ambassadors of Small Smurfs, Big Goals, a campaign aimed at teaching kids and young adults about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
“Since one of the UN goals is gender equality, adding more female characters was something we had to look at,” Glorieux admits.
This year, Belgian embassies are using Smurfs as mascots to promote the country. Brussels Airlines painted a plane with the Smurfs characters (with Gargamel and his cat Azrael on the bottom trying to sneak in). A new Smurf Experience, a virtual reality, immersive adventure park was opened at Brussels Expo in June and the 36th comic book has just been released.
“We also just launched a tool for teachers to use, on how to live a better life with the help of a positive attitude,” Glorieux says.
“The Smurf world will always be recognizable to people. The Smurfs have survived and thrived during three generations,” Vanleeuwe adds.
Published: July 5, 2018
Last edited: July 9, 2018