SMURFSOriginal medium: Comic books
Published in: Spirou
First Appeared: 1958
Creator: Peyo (Pierre Culliford)
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merchandise came from wasn't exactly "nowhere". It was Belgium, where, in the October 23, 1958, issue of the long-running French-language comic book Spirou, they made their first appearance.
"Les Schtroumpfs", as they're called in French, were introduced by cartoonist Pierre Culliford (better known as Peyo) as incidental supporting characters in his ongoing series, Johan et Pirlouit, merely a tribe of tiny blue elves the stars happened to run across in a forest. Like Popeye, Snuffy Smith and other once-secondary characters, those tiny blue elves wound up stars of the series. (The word, by the way, means "doohickey" or "thingamajig" in Flemish.)
During the 1960s, their adventures were collected into album form. These albums were sold throughout Europe, easily translated because the Schtroumpfs said very little besides "Schtroumpf" — just find a collection of letters that's reasonably pronounceable in whatever language and sounds sort of schtroumpf-like, and the job is done. In English, it was "Smurf".
Licensed merchandise followed — every possible kind, as the little guys were loved by Europeans of all nationalities and all ages. It eventually reached America, despite the fact that the albums had never been marketed here. By the late 1970s, Smurfs were everywhere — even a few of the albums were finally reprinted in English. It was inevitable that anything so cute and so popular would wind up on Saturday morning TV, and sure enough — NBC debuted the Hanna-Barbera version on September 12, 1981.
It wasn't the first time the Smurfs had been animated. That was in a feature, The Smurfs & the Magic Flute, released in Belgium in 1976 but not reaching our shores until '83. But it was the Hanna-Barbera animation that turned the former supporting characters into a worldwide phenomenon. It's also the show that revitalized Hanna-Barbera, which had been in a creative and commercial slump, and pulled NBC out of the ratings cellar. Nor was it just a flash in the pan. More than 200 episodes were produced, and they aired over a period of nearly a decade. There were also Smurf specials for every holiday, and two for Christmas.
Smurfs were "three apples tall", and individuals tended to be named after their most obvious characteristic. Nosey Smurf (voiced by Paul Winchell, who also did Disney's Tigger) was curious about other people's business, Hefty Smurf (Frank Welker, also Dynomutt) was extra-strong, Sleepy Smurf (Don Messick, also Scooby-Doo) was always ready for a snooze, etc. The village leader was Papa Smurf (Messick), who, as you could tell from his white beard, was also the oldest of the lot. Smurfette (Lucille Bliss, also Crusader Rabbit) was the only female. Their greatest enemy was Gargamel (Winchell), a human, who lived with a cat, Azrael (Messick, who also played pets in Josie & the Pussycats, Hong Kong Phooey and elsewhere). Gargamel was always after them as ingredients in a magic formula, because they were good to eat, or just on general principles. Other humans appeared occasionally — in fact, even Johan and Peewee (Pirlouit), the original stars of Peyo's comic book series, turned up on the show. Over the years, the cast was augmented by Baby Smurf, several Smurflings, Grandpa Smurf, and various others. There were a little over 100 Smurfs in all.
The Smurfs were immediately pounced on by comedians, who found them easily mocked. Their habit of substituing the word "smurf", with an appropriate suffix, for any adjective or verb, lent itself particularly well to a certain style of off-color humor. These and other barbs are probably what led to widespread disdain, a general attitude that Smurfs were popular mostly because they were too bland to offend anybody. (The fact that the animated Smurfs were aimed at a younger audience than the original albums may also have been a contributing factor.)
But those who actually watched the show found them warm, appealing, diverse — even funny. They also saw that the show offered a very positive message to its young viewers, on topics such as dealing with the disabled and interpersonal relations. It may have been a little biased toward going along with the crowd rather than striking out in new directions, but in the '80s, if a cartoon didn't take that point of view the Parent Action Groups would never let it air at all. Because of its many virtues, Smurfs won numerous awards, including more than its share of Emmys.
The Smurfs never really made it in comic books — only three issues published by Marvel in 1982-83 — but that's just because they weren't aimed at teenage boys, the only segment of the population American comic books were serving in the '80s. They did make it in video games, coloring books, and other media that go after a broader demographic.
The Smurfs' brightest days as superstars are over now, but they're still all around us in the form of reruns, DVDs, T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. Which probably means they've made the transition from "media phenomenon" to "permanent addition to our culture".