It seems appropriate to ring in the new year with a blue moon and a stork-bourne baby Smurf. THE BABY SMURF, including the title story and several other comics by the legendary Belgian native Peyo, is set for release on February 26th, 2013, a date that seemed all too futuristic even last week. For those who are out of the smurf-loop, this marks the 14th volume of Smurf comics brought to American readership by the all-ages publisher Papercutz, headed by former Marvel editor Jim Salicrup. Papercutz makes a specific point of bringing European comics to the USA as well as keeping classics in print and developing promising all-ages material. They couldn’t have chosen a more cult-following subject matter than the Smurfs.
As Papercutz points out on their website, American audiences are most familiar with The Smurfs through the decade-long television cartoon that ran on NBS from 1981-1990 and was then picked up by USA until 1993, sparking smurfmania in terms of collectable figurines, games, puzzles, and the like. But the genius of The Smurfs, and the secret to their immense success stateside lies in the mind of their creator, Pierre Culliford, aka Peyo, a masterful illustrator who both drew and wrote a majority of the Smurf stories in comic form. These comics were the touchstone of the cartoon from Smurf mythology to characterization and storylines. Marvel Comics attempted to catch readers up on the comics origin of the Smurfs in the 1980’s, but Papercutz has gone back to the original strips and compilations to give readers the immediate experience of Peyo’s creations from art to plot. It’s remarkable how Peyo’s comics stand the test of time from their advent in 1958 to the present day. There’s no better criterion for claiming a comic is “classic” than presenting it to a new audience in original form and gauging their reactions.
I grew up with the cartoon series but was lucky enough to page through some of Peyo’s work in Germany as a child while carefully tending my sacred figurine collection. I found the colors overwhelming and the visual storytelling simple enough to follow, but the densely packed text boxes were more than I could manage. Papercutz has kept the spirit of the original Peyo tales by finding a middle ground in text and dialogue, with an ear for a more modern idiom. THE BABY SMURF is a prime example of the ways in which Peyo will surprise even the Smurf-familiar with edgier narrative and dialogue than the cartoons ever allowed, and somewhat more intricate elements of storytelling. It pokes at the more outlandish elements of Smurf mythology in self-aware fashion, keeping humor fresh, but manages to remain impressively emotive in its messages.
“The Baby Smurf” opens with a hefty dose of Smurf mythology from the narratorial pen of Peyo, and it’s the sort of information that readers grasp enthusiastically precisely because Smurf stories leave so many questions unanswered. This story tackles one of the biggest questions of them all: in a Smurf village with only one patriarch, and only one Smurfette (who aficionados may recall was originally created by the hapless sorcerer Gargamel), where on earth do baby Smurfs come from? Peyo’s ready with an answer, of course. On a blue moon, something very remarkable can occur. A baby can arrive in a basket carried by a Stork. We should have guessed that, really, given the unlikelihood of more earthy forms of procreation. But “The Baby Smurf” isn’t really a story focused on explication. Grouchy Smurf bursts onto the scene with hilarious monologue when the stork raps at his door during the night: “Who’s the Smurf of a Smurf smurfing on my door at this hour?”. So much for assuming, as per urban legend, that fans have invented the multi-verbal grammatical unit “smurf” as a stand-in for expletives. Classic.
And if you expected for the Smurfs themselves to skirt around the issue of parentage, think again. “Who’s that Baby’s dad?”, they question, hinting that Grouchy is the culprit and insinuating that Smurfette must surely be the mother. When Brainy Smurf challenges Papa Smurf on the subject, he keeps his explanation as mysterious as possible. The story quickly evolves into an action-based visual narrative, leaving questions far behind. An “error by the delivery service” calls the enthusiastic reception of Baby Smurf by the Smurf community into question and prods an unlikely hero into action. Harsh natural elements and the ever-eager Gargamel are pitted against Baby Smurf’s survival and establish quite a nerve-wracking odyssey for the new Smurf. It’s a gripping read.
Also contained in the collection is “A Smurfing Party”, which may contain some of the most brutally slapstick elements of Smurf behavior I’ve ever seen. When Gargamel dresses in a bunny suit in an attempt to crash a Smurf extravaganza (and this image alone is fairly creepy and remarkable), he gets far more than he bargained for in terms of physical torment, and the Smurfs get more than they wagered for in terms of danger to their secret village. This story definitely takes Smurf antics one step further than the Smurf cartoon ever dared.
Another addition to the book, “The Weather-Smurfing Machine”, highlights attention-grabbing themes that seem particularly prescient to global-warming debates when Handy Smurf decides to take the weather (always raining) into his own hands. His “strange machine” remains a subject of “bad memories” for years to come, according to the narrator. Handy’s statement that, “It is unfortunate; everyone complains about the weather, but nobody ever smurfs anything so it’ll change”, could easily apply to current concerns, but his methods, of course, are questioned by the sharp mind of Peyo. Brainy Smurf comes up with a host of possible morals to this certainly moral tale, but leaves readers to decide which are applicable.
Fans of Peyo’s work get a rare treat in THE BABY SMURF, too, a preview of an upcoming Graphic Novel series soon to appear from Papercutz: Peyo’s BENNY BREAKIRON comic #1, “The Red Taxis”. It’s a great addition to Peyo’s reputation in the USA. Not only do Papercutz’s Smurf books give credit where credit is due to Peyo’s beautiful artwork and active mind, but soon readers will be better equipped to assess his contribution through other comics he created. BENNY BREAKIRON is about a simple, well-behaved little boy in France who, simply stated, also possesses superheroic strength. Most of the time that strength is a problem. Like a youthful Superman, he crushes and breaks things accidentally to the point that other children shun him and “Benny’s always alone”. The preview of “The Red Taxis” sets the stage for Benny, and leaves readers hanging. Surely there’s some use for his unusual strength? It’s an exciting moment in American comics when a European creator of such stature is given an entrée to new readership with such careful attention to original artwork and sensitive translation methods.
And there will be more where that came from. Not only are several more Smurf books in the works at Papercutz, but BENNY BREAKIRON will also make 2013 a Peyo year for the all-ages comics publisher. Looking back at 20th century comics could all too easily become an exercise in cataloguing its historical developments. Though we certainly need plenty of comics history to be recorded and analyzed in an intelligent way, the good news for readers is that it can be a reading experience, too, rendering all the freshness of a great comic from an ingenious creator available all over again. With solid story-telling, enchanting artwork, and plenty of questions to explore, THE BABY SMURF goes a long way toward establishing Peyo as a 21st century comics legend for English-language readers in keeping with his 20th century impact on European comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.