Johan et Pirlouit, by Peyo
Johan et Pirlouit - 'Les Sept Fontaines' (1959)

Peyo, pseudonym of Pierre Culliford, is known all over the world as the creator of the 'Smurfs', or 'Les Schtroumpfs' as they are called in French. The origins of these funny blue dwarves lie in Peyo's medieval 'Johan et Pirlouit' (1946) series, where they debuted in 1958, prepublished in Spirou magazine. The huge popularity of the Smurfs resulted in colossal merchandising, spearheaded by various animated cartoons and feature films by different companies, helium-voiced children's songs and a theme park in Metz, France (called Big Bang Schtroumpf from 1989-91, and Walibi Schtroumpf from 1991-2002, bought by Six Flags in 1998). Together with Hergé's 'Tintin' and Morris' 'Lucky Luke' it remains the best-selling Belgian comics series in the world. But Peyo is also well known for other series, like the aforementioned 'Johan et Pirlouit' ('Johan and Peewit', 1946), the unlucky black cat 'Poussy' (1949-1973) and the superstrong boy Benoît Brisefer ('Steven Strong', or ‘Benny Breakiron’, 1960). While essentially a creator of fun and adventurous children's comics Peyo's earlier stories occasionally featured more surreal moments and social satire.

Early years
Pierre Culliford was born in 1928 into a family of British origins in Brussels' Schaerbeek district. He developed an interest in comics through the work of Hergé and the American comics that appeared in magazines like Mickey, Robinson and Hurrah!. He had his first job as an assistant projectionist in a Brussels cinema during World War II. When he was seven years old his father unexpectedly died of myopathy. This caused major financial difficulties for the family, which only doubled when World War Two broke out. At the age of 15 Culliford was forced to discontinue his studies and learn an actual profession. He became assistant projectionist in a Brussels cinema for the rest of the war. In the summer of 1945 he found employment at the C.B.A. animation studios, as a replacement for Jacques Eggermont.

Pied Tendre by Peyo
'Pied-Tendre', 1946

There he retouched finished drawings in gouache and met fellow artists like André Franquin, Morris and Eddy Paape. When the company folded, crushed by the competition of American cartoon studios, Franquin, Morris and Paape found employment in the magazines published by Éditions Dupuis. Peyo, who was the youngest of the team, enrolled in the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts. He left after only three months, and did his first commercial art assignments as a full-time advertising artist through agencies like Colin, Publicontrol and Vertil between 1946 and 1951. During this period, he illustrated campaigns for the printing company Les Presses Tilbury, the powders of Dr Mann, Wavi washing powder, the Antwerp Credit Bank and Jacques chocolate. He continued to do occasional advertising work in the 1950s and 1960s, including illustrations for six calendars of the Federation of Belgian Catholic Scouts F.S.C. (1959-1965, some of them with backgrounds by Jidéhem) and for textile manufacturer Fabelta.

Poussy, by Peyo (Le Soir, 9 March 1949)
'Poussy' (Le Soir, 9 March 1949)

In addition to his commercial work, he made his first comic strips in his spare time. He adopted the pseudonym of Peyo (based on his first name Pierrot) and saw his first comic strip published in Riquet, the supplement of the the daily L'Occident, in April 1946. This comic about an indian called 'Pied-Tendre' was soon followed by the scout 'Puce', a character that reappeared in Mowgli in 1948. He remained active for Mowgli's successor, Seeonee, for which he created the character 'Petit François' in the 1950s. Peyo's first continuing story, 'Une Enquête de l'Inspecteur Pik', was published in Le Petit Monde, the children's paper of the Brussels department store Le Bon Marché. But his career as a comic artist really took off when he began an association with the newspaper La Dernière Heure.

Johan, by Peyo (Le Soir, 1952)
'Johan' (Le Soir, 1952)

Johan (and Pirlouit)
It was in this paper that Peyo introduced the knight's page 'Johan', first in a couple of silent gags in 1946, and then in a longer story in 1947. From 1950 on, the comic strip also appeared in Le Soir (for which Peyo had made his first gags with the cute black cat called 'Poussy' in the year before). 'Johan' moved over to the Belgian comics weekly Spirou two years later with the long story 'Le Châtiment de Basenhau' (1952). Originally, publisher Dupuis felt that Peyo's drawing style was still below their graphic standards, but with some strong recommendations and graphical aid from André Franquin he was finally accepted as part of the crew.

Johan, by Peyo
Johan - 'Le Châtiment de Basenhau' (Spirou, 1952)

One of the best things about Spirou was the fact that 'Johan' could now appear in colour (provided by Peyo's wife Nine). The character's blond hair changed into black and in the third story 'Le Lutin aux Bois aux Roches' (1956), Johan discovers a wild dwarf in the woods who'd soon become his new sidekick: Pirlouit. Pirlouit and his trusty black goat Bicet are brought to Johan's castle, where the energetic little man becomes the king's official joker. Soon his bad jokes and appalling songs annoy everyone, including the king, his knights, Homnibus the wizard and old lady Dame Barbe. But he is also loyal to Johan and always joins him on his adventures to combat wizards, ghosts, dragons and rival soldiers. Pirlouit proved so popular with readers that the series was soon retitled 'Johan et Pirlouit'. As one of the most popular comics in Spirou, 13 books were published by Dupuis between 1954 and 1970. 'Johan et Pirlouit' was the only series Peyo wrote and drew almost single-handedly, with the exception of the thirteenth album, which had art contributions by his assistants Gos and Walthéry.

Johan et Pirlouit - La Source des dieux (1956)
Johan et Pirlouit - 'La Source des Dieux' (1956)

The Smurfs
Yet their popularity was soon to be overshadowed a race of strange blue gnomes whom Johan and Pirlouit met in the 1958 episode 'La Flûte à Six Trous'. On 23 October 1958 'Les Schtroumpfs' made their debut in print. Their name was based on an inside joke between Peyo and Franquin. As they enjoyed dinner in a restaurant Peyo asked Franquin for the salt, but was unable to remember its name and instead of "Passez-moi le sel" he blurted out: "Passez-moi le schtroumpf". This made up word amused them the entire night and thus, when Peyo looked for a name for the little creatures he didn't have to think long. He made them blue at his wife's suggestion, who felt green would make them dissolve to much in the forest colours, red being "too fierce" and pink "too human". Right from the start the Smurfs received their characteristic mushroom shaped village, their confusing language and a bearded leader whose hat and trousers are red rather than white: Le Grand Schtroumpf (Big Papa Smurf). The Dutch name "Smurf" was also used for the English translation. Either Peter Middeldorp, who was editor-in-chief of Spirou's Flemish equivalent Robbedoes since 1957, or editor/translator Armand van Raalte came up with this name.

Johan et Pirlouit, by Peyo
'Le Pays Maudit' (1961)

Spirou's editor-in-chief Yvan Delporte saw the possibilities of the 'Smurfs' and persuaded Peyo to create a spin-off. The first solo appearances of 'Les Schtroumpfs' were in a couple of Spirou's fold-in mini-booklets, known as "mini-récits", between 1959 and 1962. By 1963, The Smurfs found their way to Spirou's regular pages and the original mini-stories were redrawn for book publications. Peyo created new characters such as the evil sorcerer Gargamel and his red cat Azrael, who would become the Smurfs' main nemeses. The duo made their debut in the story 'Le Voleur de Schtroumpfs', which was a supplement mini comic book, part of the 1130th issue of Spirou, published on 10 December 1959. Their names were thought up by Delporte who took the name "Gargamel" from the character Gargamelle in François Rabelais' classic novel 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' and 'Azrael' from the name of the Angel of Death in the Hebrew Bible. The latter may have been suggested by Delporte's wife, who was Jewish. 

Johan et Pirlouit - Le Serment des Vikings (1955)
Johan et Pirlouit - 'Le Serment des Vikings' (1955)

New Smurf characters also gave the village some variety. In 'Les Schtroumpfs Noirs' (1963) the arrogant and toady Schtroumpf A Lunettes (Brainy Smurf), the clumsy Schtroumpf Bêta (Clumsy Smurf) and Schtroumpf Farceur (Jokey Smurf) and his exploding presents made their debut. 'Le Schtroumpfissime' (1964) marked the introduction of the narcistic Schtroumpf Coquet (Vanity Smurf), who prefers watching his own reflection in the mirror, the super strong Schtroumpf Costaud  (Hefty Smurf), hungry Schtroumpf Gourmand (Greedy Smurf ) who enjoys eating cakes, the sleepy Schtroumpf Paresseux (Sleepy Smurf), the awful musician Schtroumpf Musicien (Harmony Smurf) and the nihilistic Schtroumpf Grognon (Grouchy Smurf) who never misses a chance to say how much he hates everything. The final major characters appeared in 'La Schtroumpfette' (1966), where both Schtroumpf Poète (Poetry Smurf) and La Schtroumpfette (Smurfette) first arrived on the scene. 

Le Schtroumpfissime by Peyo
'Le Schtroumpfissime' (1964)

Adult double layers
Although mainly a children's series in later years, Peyo and Yvan Delporte's early stories were great social parodies. 'Le Schtroumpfissime' (1964) has the Smurfs vote for a temporary leader during Big Papa Smurfs' absence. By rigging the votes one of them becomes king and soon establishes a tyranny. This causes other Smurfs to organize an underground resistance movement, which leads to an outright war. 'Schtroumpf vert et vert Schtroumpf' (1972) has the village divided over the intrigueing question whether a bottle opener should be addressed as a "smurf opener" or a "bottle smurfer"? The discussion causes a lot of rage and motivates the villagers to divide their town into a northern and southern part, who each claim their pronunciation of certain words and phrases is the correct one. This infamous album was a thinly veiled satire on the linguistic troubles between Flemings and Walloons in Belgium.

Le Centieme Schtroumpf by Peyo
'Le Centième Schtroumpf'

Other stories bordered to the surreal. The short story 'Le Centième Schtroumpf' in the album 'L'Oeuf et Les Schtroumpfs' (1968) has a mirror image of a Smurf confuse everybody with its synchronized movements and reverse speech. Another thing that may surprise those who perceive Peyo as nothing but an innocent provider of children's entertainment is that his comics were sometimes victim of censorship. In his very first 'Johan' story in 'Spirou' a scene where a troubadour is waterboarded in a medieval cellar was completely cut under pressure of French censors. Still, the scenes after the torture were kept, leaving readers to wonder why on Earth the man's tummy was so swollen all of a sudden? When 'The Black Smurfs' was published in the United States the black colour of the "evil" Smurf had to be changed into green to avoid accusations of racism.

La Schtroumpfette by Peyo
Gargamel's famous Smurfette recipe ('La Schtroumpfette', 1966). According to legend, Peyo's wife was not amused...

Poussy ('Pussy') and Benoît Brisefer ('Steven Strong')
Peyo also created other series. In 1947 he launched a first series of 'Poussy' gags in Le Soir. Poussy was a cute black and white cat whose curiosity often got him in trouble. The series showed Peyo's talent for making simple stories aimed at a young audience. 'Poussy' returned in 1955, when Le Soir launched its weekly supplement Le Soir Illustré. By 1961 Peyo quit the series, but the cat reappeared in Spirou in 1965, first in reprints and from 1969 on with new gags. In 1960 he created another classic, 'Benoît Brisefer' about a small boy with superhuman strength, who nevertheless loses his powers whenever he gets a cold. Benoît appears to be an orphan,  since he lives alone in a house in his hometown Vivejoie-La-Grande. Luckily he has company of the cab driver Monsieur Dussiflard and Madame Adolphine, a friendly old lady whose likeness is later used to create an evil doppelgänger robot. In 2014 'Benoît Brisefer' was adapted into a live-action film adaptation, 'Benoît Brisefer - Les Taxis Rouges' (2014). Peyo's other adventure comics series 'Jacky et Célestin' appeared in Le Soir Illustré in 1961.

Poussy by Peyo

Pierrot et la Lampe
Three short stories of 'Pierrot et la Lampe' was published in Benoît Gillain's advertising comic booklet Bonux-Boy in 1960. The series stars a young boy who finds a magic lamp containing a goofing genie. The stories were reworked to the regular page format of Spirou magazine in 1965 and 1966, and then didn't return until its relaunch in Schtroumpf magazine between 1990 and 1992. Peyo additionally made the illustrations for the annual calendars of the Belgian Scouting Federation between 1960 and 1965.

Pierrot et la Lampe by Peyo
'Pierrot et la lampe' (1965)

The expansion of activities and the increasing popularity of the 'Smurfs' meant that Peyo had to call in help to keep up with the workload. His first apprentice was the future art painter Gérard Deuquet, who inked the mini-story 'L’Oeuf et les Schtroumpfs' in 1960. Peyo asked Will to draw 'Jacky et Célestin' and to do the backgrounds on the first 'Benoît Brisefer' stories. Throughout the years, several young artists came to work at to what was to become known as Studio Peyo. François Walthéry and Gos were Peyo's longtime assistants during the 1960s, but also Derib, Lucien De Gieter, André Benn, Roger Leloup, Francis, Marc Wasterlain, Albert Blesteau and especially Daniel Desorgher have worked in Peyo's atelier at the Avenue de Boetelaer in Brussels. Yvan Delporte remained a loyal writing partner.

Still, the neverending demand for new Smurfs merchandise made new episodes of Peyo's other series became more and more scarce. 'Johan et Pirlouit' only made their appearance in two short stories in the late 1970s and the distance between new stories starring 'Benoît Brisefer' and even 'The Smurfs' became longer. Peyo, the master storyteller, had become so involved in the business side of the exploitation of his blue dwarfs, that he couldn't find the time or the concentration to focus on new comic epics. The Smurfs stories that did appear were shorter than before, and lacked the social parody that had characterized the early episodes.

Benoît Brisefer, by Peyo
Benoît Brisefer - 'Madame Adolphine' (1962)

Global success of The Smurfs
Meanwhile the Smurfs gradually conquered the world. Already in 1961 a series of five black-and-white animated cartoons were created around the characters and premiered on the Walloon public TV channel RTB (nowadays RTBF). Part of the animation team were Francis Bertrand, Raoul Cauvin, Charles Degotte, Jean Delire, Vivian Miessen and Eddy Ryssack. Four years later these five little shorts were anthologized into a TV film. A decade later, a more ambitious animated feature film in colour was created by Belvision: 'La Flute à Six Schtroumpfs' ('The Smurfs and the Magic Flute', 1976), which Peyo personally directed. It received good reviews. In 1977 Dutch singer Vader Abraham recorded a novelty song, 'Het Smurfenlied', about the characters, which was not only a number one hit in his home country, but also in Flanders. He personally created translations in English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Icelandic and even Chinese, which all ranked high in the charts and expanded the characters' notability even further across the globe. To this day, children's CD's with Smurf-related covers of popular hits sang in squeaky helium voices are still unbelievable bestsellers. In 1980 the Smurfs became the official mascots of the Belgian team during the Olympic Games in Moscow.  The same year Peyo was one of many Belgian comics artists to make a graphic contribution to the book 'Il était une fois... les Belges'/'Er waren eens Belgen' (1980), a collection of columns and one-page comics, published at the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium.

Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon series
But their true international breakthrough occured when the Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon series debuted in 1981. Peyo, accompanied by Yvan Delporte, spent most of his time overseeing the scripts which were made by the overseas studio. The plot lines were simplified to appeal to young viewers. Gargamel no longer wanted to catch the Smurfs to turn them into gold, but just because he wanted to eat them. The Smurfette, who only had appeared once in the comics, now became a major character. And to avoid violent imagery Brainy Smurf was no longer hit over the head with a hammer, but simply kicked out of the village with the action itself happening off screen, only showing him flying through the sky from a distance, then landing on his head on the foreground. But Peyo strongly vetoed some suggestions by the studio too, like "Americanizing" his characters. 'The Smurfs' soon became a ratings hit in the USA, ran for nine seasons and even won Peyo an Emmy Award in 1982 for "Outstanding Achievement in Children's Entertainment". By being broadcast all over the planet The Smurfs soon became a global phenomenon, making Peyo a millionaire too. By 1985 he even moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, to enjoy financial benefits.

Pièges à Schtroumpfs by Peyo
'Pièges à Schtroumpfs' (1968)

The 'Smurf' stories which appeared in Spirou during this period were often derived from the cartoons series and starred new characters like the Baby Smurf and the Little Smurfs. Always a perfectionist but also a slow worker himself, Peyo remained involved in the creation of the stories, but left most part of the production of the new stories to Daniel Desorgher. Former studio-workers like Walthéry and Wasterlain also filled in to reach in the deadlines.

The international success of the 'Smurfs' in the 1980s and the fact that the publishing house Dupuis was sold to a Brussels banking group, led to a reorganization of Peyo's activities. Peyo's children Thierry and Veronique were now handling the business aspects of the Smurfs, including the merchandising, the launch of Schtroumpfs magazine and overseeing the creation of the Smurfs theme park in Maizières-lès-Metz, France. A new studio called Cartoon Creation was set up by Thierry Culliford elsewhere in Brussels, which also launched a Smurfs magazine and published three albums. Among the artists affiliated with Cartoon Creation were Daniel Desorgher, Bernard Swysen, Philippe Delzenne, Alain Maury, Pascal Garray, Eric Closter, José Grandmont and Luc Parthoens. The new team got their playing ground in a Schtroumpf monthly magazine, launched by Cartoon Creation between 1990 and 1992. Besides short stories and gags with the Smurfs, often adaptations of the TV series, the magazine also featured new gags and stories of 'Poussy' and 'Pierrot et la Lampe'. The latter were written by editor-in-chief Jean-Claude de la Royère and drawn by Philippe Delzenne and Éric Closter. Peyo stayed on the background in the actual production of the comics, but was involved in the training of the new artists and writers and the approval and editing of the scripts. Peyo's main goal remained the business aspects of his Smurfs.

Le Schtroumpf Financier by Peyo
'Le Schtroumpf Financier'

Only two problems bothered him. Hanna-Barbera started taking his characters in directions he didn't want anything to do with, like an anti-drugs special. Despite the fact that his characters weren't shown near any illegal substances Peyo still didn't want them to be associated with it in any way. When the episode was made and broadcast without his permission he refused collaborating with Hanna-Barbera anymore, which prompted the studio to sue. Only by intervention of Delporte did Peyo eventually wise up. Despite remaining involved with new episodes he still had to grudgingly accept the introduction of new characters he didn't like at all, like the puppy dog of the little Smurfs. Peyo's second major problem was his health. A lifelong smoker, Peyo already suffered from a heart attack in 1969. In the 1980s he became a diabetic due to a hepatitis infection. The stress of all the media attention for the Smurfs and business deals didn't do him much good either.

Peyo received the Prix Saint-Michel (1973) for Best Humoristic story for the comic book 'Schtroumpf Vert et Vert Schtroumpf', which was co-written with Yvan Delporte. In 1984 Peyo also won the Prix Jeunesse or 'Alfred' at the Festival of Angoulême for 'Les Schtroumpfs Olympiques'.

By 1992, Peyo's creations were transfered to Le Lombard. The deal with the publishing house included not only new albums starring 'Les Schtroumpfs', but also new albums with 'Benoît Brisefer' and his favorite 'Johan et Pirlouit'. Since most of the business aspects were now out of hands and in spite of a steadily declining health, Peyo started working on a new long Smurfs epic with the help of his son and the artists Alain Maury and Luc Parthoens. This resulted in 'Le Schtroumpf Financier' and marked a return to the social parody of earlier episodes. Peyo lived to see the publication of the book, but died from a heart attack on Christmas eve 1992, at the age of 64. Production of the new 'Johan et Pirlouit' album was to start in January 1993. 

Peyo photograph

Peyo lives on in his immortal creations. New comics are still written and drawn by Thierry Culliford, Alain Jost, Luc Parthoens, Pascal Garray, Ludo Borecki, Jeroen De Coninck and Miguel Díaz Vizoso. Both the licensing and artistic activities are nowadays implemented in IMPS, a studio in the Walloon Brabant town of Genval, which is managed by Véronique Culliford. In 1935 an asteroid was discovered which was half a century later named after Peyo. In 1989 the comics legend became one of the few Belgian comics pioneers to become part of the permanent exhibition at the Belgian Comics Center in Brussels.In 2005 during the Walloon version of "The Greatest Belgian" election Peyo ended at the 33rd place. The same year the Smurfs were used in a controversial TV advertisement for UNICEF which showed the Smurfs' village being bombed by warplanes, ending on a shot of a crying Baby Smurf along several dead Smurfs, with the message: "Don't let war destroy the world of childhood." In 2011 global interest in the franchise was revived when a series of CGI-live-action Hollywood films hit the theaters. Apart from inspiring a new TV series of animated shorts it also inspired the Spanish town Júzcar to paint all their buildings blue. Its citizens voted to keep their town in this colour, as it actually increased tourism. 

Yet nowhere are the Smurfs so honoured as in Belgium. In 2003 Monique Mol sculpted statues of the Hefty Smurf and Smurfette, located at the sea dyke in Middelkerke. Since 25 June 2012 a Smurf sculpture created by Maryline Garbe can be seen inside the Brussels Central Station, next to a store specializing in Smurf merchandising. Inside the same station, a ceiling fresco depicting the Smurfs was inaugurated on 19 June 2018. Another comic mural, this time depicting Benoît Brisefer, was revealed on 19 June 2015 in the Rue Haute/Hoogstraat 119. All are nowadays part of the Brussels' Comic Book Route. The same year, on 25 June 2015, another statue of a Smurf was erected in the Rue Rosières in Genval, Walloon Brabant, Belgium. 

The term "Smurf" has also become an international neologism. In Belgium it is used as a derogatory nickname for "policemen". In the U.S. also leant its name to a computer term ("Smurf attack", which is used to describe denial-of-service attacks against hosts) and a criminal activity ("Smurfing", a synonym for illegal financial transactions in a shattered pattern to avoid being noticed by the law). In 1991, Katha Pollitt also based her theory about having one female character among a host of male characters in fiction on the franchise and named it "The Smurfette Principle". Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote a humorous essay, 'Schtroumpf und Drang' (1979), about the semantics of the Smurf language, while Marc Schmidt wrote an equally tongue-in-cheek article in 1998 comparing the Smurf village with a Communist commune. Having made their mark on global pop culture and inspiring countless parodies, from the cartoons of Gummbah to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park', the Smurfs will continue to entertain global audiences for years to come. 

Books about Peyo
For those interested in Peyo's life and career Hugues Dayez' biography, 'Peyo l'enchanteur' (Niffle, 2003) is highly recommended.

Johan by Peyo
Johan - 'Le Maître de Roucybeuf' (1953)

The Smurfs official website

Series and books by Peyo in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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