Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 232 (9/23) -- Two Smurfy Books by Peyo

Papercutz -- the graphic-novels-for kids publisher headed by Jim Salicrup -- has scented a new wave of Smurfmania about to sweep America, with an all-new live action & CGI Smurf movie coming next year and renewed interest in the 1980s TV show. But they knew what a lot of people have forgotten: that the Smurfs were originally, and primarily, a comics property, appearing in over two dozen albums by Peyo. [1] And so Papercutz has re-launched Peyo's characters -- Les Schtroumpfs, in their home tongue -- for a new generation of American fans. [2]

The first two books -- The Purple Smurfs, a slightly retitled and recolored version of the first Smurf album, 1963's Les Schtroumpfs noirs; and The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, a similarly retitled version of the Smurf's first appearance in the 9th album about medieval pages Johan and Pirlouit (aka Johan and Peewit in English), La flûte à six trous -- are available now, with a third (The Smurf King, presumably a translation of the second Smurf album of the same name) coming in December. And, even though these stories were created for a Franco-Belgian audience over fifty years ago, they're still clever and fun now. [3]

The Purple Smurfs is the better of the two -- or perhaps I should say the smurfier of the two. It contains three stories, two of which are credited to Yvan Delporte and Peyo (and the third to just Peyo), and all of which are funny, energetic, and zippy. The title story -- in which a mysterious bug's bite turns the smurfs into hulk-ish purple hoppers who can say only "Gnap!" and bite each other to spread the infection -- follows a predictable shape, but it's enjoyable throughout, and an eye-opener for those who thinks of Smurfs as just the mushy TV versions.

"The Flying Smurf" takes up the middle of the book, and it's the best of the three stories -- inventively humorous in the I-can-top-that, one-damn-thing-after-another style of Chuck Jones's Roadrunner cartoons. (Letterer Janice Chiang also wins seventeen Internets for her clever and funny homage to Harvey Kurtzman on the first page -- as depicted to the left.) The story is simple -- one smurf decides he wants to fly, since that would solve all of his problems -- but allows for many, many funny variations.

The third story -- "The Smurf and His Neighbors" -- is more gentle, with one smurf deciding to move to the woods to get away from the noises of his neighbors, and, inevitably, discovering that things are no better anywhere else. All three of these stories are smurfily entertaining, and they're different enough from each other to provide some variety.

The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, on the other hand, isn't really a Smurfs graphic novel at all, despite the fact that it's their first appearance. It was the ninth volume of the adventures of Johan and Peewit -- who are either a page and his sidekick, or a squire and a jester, or something like that, in the sort of vague medievaloid kingdom that you'd expect from a '50s series for younger readers -- and the Smurfs show up as supporting characters about halfway through. Since this is the middle of an ongoing series, Johan and Peewit aren't introduced here, and the Smurf-seeking reader has to figure out who they are and why the King is hiding from Peewit's horrifically bad musicianship rather than doing something about it. (And this reader assumed that the king is the sort of old softy that young '50s comics readers would expect, and couldn't bear to tell his jester that he's a rotten singer.) Johan is tall, stalwart, and brave; Peewit is short, gluttonous, and a practical joker -- a fairly typical double act.

Before long, the magic flute of the title comes into Peewit's hands, and he soon discovers that it is magic: it causes people to dance uncontrollably when played (even by so bad a musician as Peewit). An unscrupulous character named Matthew Oilycreep learns of the flute and steals it, which sets Johan and Peewit off on a quest to retrieve it and foil Matthew's dastardly plans. It turns out that the Smurfs created the flute, so kindly wizard Homnibus (a continuing character in the series) enchants Johan and Peewit off to the Smurfs' village to get their help.

Of course, it all comes out right in the end. In this story, the Smurfs are one-half comic relief and one-half local color; they're the goofy people that Our Heroes run into during this adventure. But, like Popeye and Snuffy Smith before them, they quickly became more popular than their hosts, so Magic Flute is interesting as the germ of the later Smurfimania. And it's a solidly entertaining adventure story in the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, so fans of Tintin or Asterix will want to take a look at it to see what another Eurocomics master could do in that style. But it's not nearly as smurfy as Purple Smurf is.

[1] Most of these were "by" Peyo in the same way that the films of the Walt Disney Studio in the '40s and '50s were "by" Disney; Peyo was the head of the studio, and supervised everything, but didn't do the day-to-day work of actually writing and drawing comics.

[2] Want to feel old? If the target audience for the Smurfs is 6-12, then the youngest Smurf fans when the TV show launched (in 1981) are now 35.

[3] And the Smurfs are still appealing to that tween target audience, if my twelve-year-old son is any indication; he's been bugging me for The Purple Smurfs since he saw it come in the mail.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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