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' series, that appeared in Spirou magazine during its glory days in the 1950s. The huge popularity of the Smurfs resulted in an animated feature film (1975), a 3D feature film (2011), an extensive merchandise line, a Hanna-Barbera TV series, and a Smurf theme park in Metz, France (called Big Bang Schtroumpf from 1989-91, and Walibi Schtroumpf from 1991-2002, bought by Six Flags in 1998).
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.
There he retouched finished drawings in gouache and met 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 artistic assignments through ad agencies like Colin, Publicontrole and Vertil.
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. Peyo's first continuing story, 'Une Enquête de l'Inspecteur Pik', was published in 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.
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. The comic strip also appeared in Le Soir from 1950 on, but moved over to Spirou magazine two years later with the long story 'Le Châtiment de Basenhau' (1952). Originally 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.
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.
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'. 'Les Schtroumpfs' - as they were named - were actually 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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The adventure series 'Jacky et Célestin' appeared in Le Soir Illustré in 1961.
The short story 'Pierrot et la Lampe' was published in the advertising comic book Bonux-Boy in 1965, and two further short stories were published in Spirou in the following year. Peyo additionally made the illustrations for the annual calendars of the Belgian Scouting Federation between 1960 and 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. He 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.
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 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.
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). 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). It received good reviews in Europe and expanded the Smurfs' popularity. In 1977 Dutch singer Vader Abraham recorded a novelty song, 'Het Smurfenlied', about the characters, which was not only a number one 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.
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 that 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 (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 was set up elsewhere in Brussels and new artists were hired, including Alain Maury and Bernard Swysen. Peyo remained involved in the creation of new short stories for Schtroumpf magazine and the training of the new artists.
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.
By 1990, 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 'Johan et Pirlouit' and 'Benoît Brisefer' stories. Since the business aspects were now out of hands and in spite of a steadily declining health, Peyo started working on a new long Smurf 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.
However, 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. In 2005 during the Walloon version of "The Greatest Belgian" Peyo ended at the 33th 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.
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 enjoy audiences for years to come.