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Behind the Blue: The Story of Peyo

The Smurfs are global stars as big as Tintin. Like him, too, they're a merchandising miracle. Yet even Hergé told their author he should forget about doing comics. So how did a dreamer with no obvious talents end up fathering world-famous icons? That's the secret revealed in Peyo, currently on show in Paris.

The Smurfs were invented by Pierre "Peyo" Culliford (1928-1992). Though he was born outside Brussels, both his father and his grandfather were English. Their family tree had one exotic sprig – an 18th-century pirate by the name of Robert Culliford. But Pierre's own father, naturalized a Belgian, was thoroughly bourgeois. He installed his wife and three children in a spacious home, shared with not one but both sets of grandparents.

Pierre "Peyo" Culliford around 1960

Pierre was the family's youngest son, initially known as "Pierrot." But an English cousin mispronounced this nickname into "Peyo." Peyo was a sociable child who loved sports and storytelling. Every Sunday, after lunch, he would stage a play for his family. These productions always had historic themes, inspired by Hergé's Tintin or the U.S. comics in Mickey and Robinson.

Yet there was something sinister in the Culliford home. Peyo's father was suffering from a mystery illness which, over several years, slowly paralysed him. One night when he was seven, Peyo was called to tell him goodbye. As the boy kissed his father's face, he realized it was cold.

He looked for solace in music, drawing, and the Boy Scouts. But while the Scout choir was happy to make him a soloist, Peyo's art teacher told him he had "no talent at all."

When he was twelve, the Nazis marched into Belgium. By his fifteenth birthday, the family was impoverished. Forced to quit school for work, Peyo became a movie projectionist. Culliford Senior had loved the cinema and he used to screen silent films at home. But Peyo, who worshipped Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, was stuck showing endless reels of German propaganda.

One exception was a strange French movie, Marcel Carné's Les Visiteurs du soir (The Night Visitors). A medieval allegory of good and evil, Peyo watched it over and over. He never forgot it.

In search of better wages, he spent his spare time looking for jobs. One day, having just missed the of a dental assistant, Peyo decided he would answer every ad. The next one, from a company called "the CBA," changed his life.

The CBA was the Companie Belge d'Actualités, a business owned by the journalist Paul Nagant. It was started in Liège to make cinema newsreels. But, under the Occupation, "news" was a no-go area, so Nagant moved to Brussels and switched to animation. He hired a motley crew of students in their twenties, art school pals like Eddy Paape, Jacques Eggermont, Georges Salmon, and André Franquin. Another, Maurice de Bevere, had studied art by correspondence and was dying to draw cowboy stories.

Peyo, only 17, was hired as a colorist. He was thrilled to start work on Le Cadeau à la fée, a tale about elves wearing flowers for hats. His lucky break, however, lasted less than a year. Suspected of collaboration, Nagant was arrested. Once he was detained, the CBA evaporated.

Determined to become an artist, Peyo enrolled in the Academie des Beaux-Arts. But within months he had met Janine Devroye, who was going out with a friend in his choir. To win over "Nine," Peyo needed a steady job and he found one with an advertising agency. Advertising could offer a steady wage and a future, yet Culliford still dreamed about a life in comics. So he also applied to the just-launched Tintin. Although he was interviewed by no less than Hergé, his childhood idol firmly crushed his hopes.

As the exposition shows, there's no mystery why. Peyo's early comics are shockingly stiff and awkward; even the best are uninspired and derivative. But, just as he pursued Nine Devroye (engaged in 1950, they married within a year), Peyo worked steadily to make comics his calling. Every month, despite the fact they were rarely acknowledged, he mailed off drawings and proposals. He had a couple of modest triumphs, appearing in Riquet and Le Petit Monde. He also got small gags in a couple of newspapers. But every week, Peyo's mother telephoned Nine to beg: Could she not talk Peyo out of this strange obsession?

Her worries were understandable, because World War II had decimated Belgian publishing. Kiddie mags lost access to their American strips – long the foundation of their popularity. The Occupation then caused a critical paper shortage. All the country's publications shrank in size and many vanished. Yet by 1946, things were looking up.

One reason why was Belgium's local talent. Several youth publications had soldiered on despite the War, a feat made possible only by the artists on site. These creators, such as E.P. Jacobs and "Jijé" Gillain, were first used to ghost the missing strips. But, joined by new recruits like Willy Vandersteen and Sirius (Max Mayeu), they began to resurrect older, homegrown series. Then they began to create new ones. The popularity of such offerings grew and, when the imports returned, they were overshadowed.

Meanwhile, even before Belgium's Liberation, work to restore the press was underway. Agents for what became the Office of Paper Allocation had discovered a pulp source in Scandinavia. Thus equipped, they revived publishing through subsidies. One aspect of their scheme proved important for comics: the fact that, from 1944 to 1946, paper was available only through a quota system. To receive "prime" quality paper, publishers were required to take the same amount in second-class goods. This inferior paper was used for kiddie supplements – around two dozen with names like Far West, Grand Coeur, Jeep, Story, and L'Explorateur.

Then there was the publication Heroïc-albums (1945-1956). First monthly, then bi-monthly, and finally weekly, Heroïc was the brainchild of 17-year-old Fernand Chevenel. Rather than running week-to-week serials, it published entire stories. These tales, filled with action, echoed the crime fictions now popular with adults. its content brought Heroïc a dubious reputation and this ended up limiting its circulation. But the journal was home to talents like Greg, Tibet, and Maurice Tillieux, and many of its staffers ended up at Tintin.

The frustrated Peyo played no role in this renaissance. But it encouraged him to persevere alone. In 1946, in the daily La Dernière Heure, he published four frames entitled Johan, le Petit Page. Johan, a young and chivalrous teen from the Middle Ages, would endure where other experiments – pirate Capitaine Coky, Amerindian Tender-Foot, and detective Inspector Pik – did not.

Peyo's early version of his medieval page Johan, 1947

Then, one morning, Peyo ran into André Franquin. Five years had passed since their time at the CBA and the two alumnae had plenty of news to share. Franquin had driven across America with Gillain and de Bevere (who was now "Morris" and living in Connecticut). Along with Eddy Paape, they were all working for Spirou. Peyo confessed that he sent Spirou strips each week – but his work was always being rejected. Franquin volunteered to speak with publisher Charles Dupuis. Whatever he told the boss, Peyo was promptly hired.

No one knows what Franquin saw in the struggling Peyo. But the pair became close friends, sharing everything from cocktails to babysitting. For years, the older artist would give Peyo astute advice. Decades later, Culliford told an interviewer: "Franquin set the bar for me and, over my whole career, I've worked hard to measure up".

When Peyo joined Spirou in 1952, the magazine was almost as small as the CBA. Decisions were finalized by publisher Dupuis, with day-to-day direction from Jean Doisy (a Communist) and the versatile, generous Jijé. The other full-time staffers were Will Maltaite and Franquin. Contributors like Paape, Jean-Michel Charlier, and Victor Hubinon were actually employed by World Press, the syndicator who doubled as Spirou's PR agency. Morris sent his strip, Lucky Luke, in from America.

During the early 1950s, work at such publications was lowly. Comics were lumped together with all the "illustrés" for children, throwaway diversions at which the wages were derisory. In a conservative and materialistic Belgium, this only added to their staffers' isolation.

Eventually workers at World Press tried to unionize (as a result, they were fired on the spot). But early on no one had time to think about conditions. Instead, propelled by shared ideas and always-urgent deadlines, they turned Spirou into a little world of their own. It was this universe which made Peyo's art possible and his career was tied to its human circuitry.

Between 1952 and 1954, Peyo worked out the story of Johan. Using sword-and sorcery tropes he had always loved, he created a universe of loyal servants and royal bosses. Johan's blond hair turned black and, in addition to minstrels and magicians, he gained a sidekick. This was a gluttonous, maladroit dwarf by the name of "Pirlouit" (for Anglophones, "Peewit"). Pirlouit would remain Peyo's all-time favorite character.

The comics of Peyo's youth contained few swashbucklers but medieval storylines were not completely absent. Culliford loved both Hergé's pirate tales and Foster's Prince Valiant. But he also grew up with 1940's Roberjac, Mousquetaire du Roy (Roberjac, The King's Musketeer) and Spirou's 1941 Le Navire Fantôme (The Phantom Vessel). The latter, inspired by the legend of the Flying Dutchman, featured wild, baroque art by Fernand Vanhamme. Peyo also read the Arthurian tale Morgana (1944–1946) in Bravo!

A page of 1941's The Phantom Vessel from Spirou; one of the sword-and-sorcery comics read by young Peyo (courtesy Bibliothèque Forney Paris)

The late '40s brought a few more such fantasies: Wrill magazine's Les Tribulations de Jehan Niguedouille (The Trials of Jean the Simple) as well as works by Flemish artists Bob de Moor (Le Mystère du vieux chateau-fort, 1947) and Willy Vandersteen (the series Lancelot).

But, thanks to its storytelling, Johan was different. Peyo's years and years of solitary revision helped the artist get a grip on narrative clarity. "That's the skill of Peyo's drawing," Franquin always said. "Put one of his boards on the wall and step back five meters. You can still see exactly what's going on."

Life at Spirou was busy, pressurized – and social. Its artists met less in the office than in bars, eateries and each other's homes. The Culliford home became one of its centers. "The first time I was ever invited over to Peyo's," said artist Jean Roba, "I told myself, 'You've made it, finally you're part of the club.'"

Unlike all his friends, Peyo never sketched in public. While the other artists would doodle on beer mats or napkins, Culliford made notes. "He was always jotting down an idea or a phrase," said Nine. "He might even get out of bed at night to write something down." Carefully, Peyo filed all his notes away.

Once, on a summer holiday, the Cullifords and Franquins were dining out together. Peyo wanted to salt his food but, halfway through asking, the relevant noun eluded him. "André," he gestured, "Pass me the … pass me the … pass me the schtroumpf." Franquin passed the salt shaker, saying "Take it easy, here's your schtroumpf!" and Peyo fired back "Okay, when I'm through with it, I'll schtroumpf it back."

Delighted with their game, the pair "spoke schtroumpf" all night. At the evening's end, Culliford jotted down the joke.

There are countless anecdotes like this from Spirou's heyday. All reflect a hothouse of percolating creativity, one in which skills and jokes were swapped without a thought. It was a heady and fertile world in which Peyo flourished and his best work radiates its zest.

François Ayroles draws Peyo inventing the word "Schtroumpf" from Moments Clés du Journal du Spirou, Dupuis, 2018 © François Ayroles

The critic Serge Lemoine describes Peyo's art this way: "Peyo favoured the actual drawing, calligraphic strokes with no shadows or modelling. It's a simplified line whose round rhythm connects all the forms. His shapes have presence but every character and all the décors are stylised. Any superfluous detail has been eliminated, so that every frame, every board, is instantly readable."

In 1954, Spirou jumped from 24 pages to 32. It also moved offices, into downtown Brussels. Charles Dupuis installed World Press on a floor of the premises – and he put Yvan Delporte in charge of Spirou. A bearded provocateur who viewed himself as an "anarchist," Delporte had worked for Dupuis in several capacities. Fluent in Dutch and English, he was exactly Peyo's age. Just like Peyo, too, Delporte had lost his father at the age of seven.

The lanky beatnik became an excellent editor. An expert with talents and egos, he was brimming with offbeat ideas. Delporte had an issue printed using perfumed ink, hired a marksman to shoot holes in a cover with cowboy Lucky Luke and housed a real lion – "Pinky" – in his office. Abetted by his long-time pal Maurice Rosy, the editor surprised his staff as much as Spirou's audience.

By the mid-'50s, when Morris returned from America, he found Spirou "a totally different publication, full of fresh ideas and new stars like Peyo."

A Christmas issue of the 1950s Spirou Peyo joined; courtesy Christian Larchero

Then, in 1958, Culliford made history. As part of Johan's ninth adventure, La Flute à six trous (The Flute with Six Holes), Peyo had Peewit discover a magic flute made by sprites. These little beings mixed the CBA's elves with his accidental word from the previous summer. They became "les Schtroumpfs," those characters Anglophones would soon meet as Smurfs.

It was Nine, her husband's colorist, who made them blue. "That was a process of elimination," she said. "Green would have mixed them up in the foliage; yellow would make them look ill. If they were pink, they would seem embarrassed and, if they were red, readers would think they were angry."

No one objected to Peyo's blue beings. But their "language" caused some problems. When Spirou's young readers tried speaking "Schtroumpf" at home, irritated parents soon made their feelings known. They were followed by teachers who felt all children should be reading "proper French." Peyo was called on the carpet by Dupuis. But the artist was used to being in such hot water – his first-ever Spirou strip had featured medieval torture. Later, in a magazine where no one ever died, Peyo deliberately drowned one of Johan's villains.

This time, however, he had no worries. After all, the blue elves were extras in a single story. Given a few months, no one would remember them.

Peyo's first drawing of a Schtroumpf (Smurf)

If not for Yvan Delporte, that might have happened. For Peyo happily moved on to the Smurf-less Johan saga La Guerre des 7 fontaines (War of the Seven Fountains). Delporte, however, thought the blue elves could be useful. He wanted to plant a miniature magazine in the centerfold and Peyo's tiny characters would make perfect protagonists. The artist, a slow worker, agreed on one condition: Delporte had to help him with the story.

Thus began a partnership which turned the Smurfs into stars.

Delporte's mini-supplement was 1959's Les Schtroumpfs Noirs (The Black Smurfs). It shows the imps turned against themselves by a mystery microbe, an insect-driven plague that blackens their bodies and their characters. Given Belgium's ongoing colonization of the Congo – echoed for years in its youth publications – this simplistic fable would later appear problematic. For export, it had to become The Purple Smurfs.

Today, Smurf lore is its own field of study. Yet few Franco-Belgian critics see Les Schtroumpfs Noirs as racist.1 Within Peyo's oeuvre, they focus more – and more justifiably – on incidents of sexism and anti-Semitism. Due to Yvan Delporte's fervent love of sci-fi, the mini-story is cited as an early zombie apocalypse tale. Almost certainly Delporte had read Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend. This existential story of a germ-borne pandemic (spread via biting) inaugurated the genre. Delporte and Peyo's horde of infected, black-as-night Smurfs – who, when contaminated, lose all the ability to communicate – certainly seem like its diminutive echo. Their cartoon even contains the same search for "scientific" solutions.

Delporte's supplement proved a massive hit – so much so that the editor gave the Smurfs five more "minis." Dupuis also started an animation house, TVA Dupuis, to put them on Belgian TV. For publicity, Spirou commissioned small figures in latex.

By now Peyo had an intern called Gérard Deuquet. When the first Smurf figurines arrived, Deuquet was touched by his boss. "The toys weren't even painted and they were still all pink. But Peyo was over the moon, he was just like a little kid." The artist lined all the statues up on his table. Then, grabbing a scalpel, he lopped off one figure's tail and glued it in between his legs. The full-frontal Smurf had his intern in stitches.

Peyo was now one of Spirou's biggest names. Yet he had never forgotten who first published him. In 1963, the newspaper Le Soir decided to revive its post-War kiddie supplement. The editors asked Peyo if he could revive Poussy, his 1949 series about a cat. Charles Dupuis, however, was now jealous of his star. If Poussy reappeared, he decreed, it had to be in Spirou.

Peyo conceded, but he went on to draw a new series for Le Soir. This was Benoît Brisefer (Steven Strong), a Francophone twist on the 1960s superhero. Although Benoît is the possessor of colossal strength, he is also just a child. When he catches a cold, his superpower vanishes.

A pint-size existential loner in a beret, Benoît speaks and thinks like a grade school kid. Yet he is shunned by all the other children. He also has no family and lives alone in an empty house. As with several of Spirou's new series, this was not exactly boilerplate fare for youngsters. Yet Charles Dupuis loved it and he demanded to publish both Benoît and Poussy. With typical stubbornness, Peyo then created a third story for Le Soir. This one starred two adolescents, Jacky and Celéstin, but the art was handled by Will Maltaite.

Peyo was now producing four separate series, not to mention covers, illustrations, and Boy Scout calendars. This workload saw the inception of "Studio Peyo": a set of assistants he employed for the rest of his life. Some of its participants were just starting out; others were highly experienced. But all of them worked to Peyo's exacting specifications.

Drawing for October 1964 in one of Peyo's Boy Scout calendars

The first such associate was François Walthéry, who arrived in 1963. Since he was barely 17, Walthéry moved in with the Cullifords. He became close friends with Peyo's son and daughter and, eventually, the artist's lifelong pal. But as years went by, many other names would pass through Peyo's doors: Roland "Gos" Goossens, Marc Wasterlain, Dérib (Claude de Ribaupierre), Lucien De Gieter, Daniel Desorgher, Roger Leloup, André Benniest, and Albert Blesteau.

Each discovered a boss of paradoxical character, for the artist was both insecure and hypercritical. Peyo once characterized his job as "like that of a playwright. When I'm writing, I enjoy myself enormously. But the production, the drawing itself, is more of a chore." Although doubtful of his graphic skills, Peyo was unwilling – or unable – to delegate. Every passing year and each new success made him more and overextended.

The Smurfs' first forty-page story, Le Schtroumpfissime (King Smurf) appeared in 1964. The female La Schtroumpfette (Smurfette) followed in 1966. The same year, Peyo was approached by Kellogg's Benelux, who wanted plastic Smurfs to put in Corn Flakes boxes. The artist was so delighted he even drew all the ads. When this initiative ended, the figures' manufacturer – Germany's Bully Figuren – got in contact. They urged Peyo to start licensing figurines.

Culliford approached Charles Dupuis as a partner but his publisher laughed at the idea. His company, Dupuis told Peyo, "didn't sell plastic toys." So Peyo took the plunge into merchandising alone. With all Smurf marketing, he was the sole beneficiary.

This decision radically changed his life. When François Walthéry had joined the Culliford household, only Peyo's mother-in-law telephoned the studio. But, within a year, their phone was ringing off the hook. Peyo spent hours and hours every day on marketing. He started working at night, when things were quieter, and tried to compensate with naps after lunch. To meet his many deadlines, this meant more all-nighters. But, as Jean Roba put it, "Back then, if you needed help, you could phone anyone. You could ask at any hour, time didn't matter."

The human support system anchored more than Peyo's work; its artist friendships mattered very deeply to him. Even the Smurfs' world, he felt, reflected them. "Me, Jijé, Franquin, Morris, Roba, Yvan, Tillieux … we were a gang. We saw each other all the time and it wasn't just for work. It was more about the sheer pleasure of being together."

Peyo's caricature of bearded Yvan Delporte in an ad, 1964

Peyo's home studio was packed with distractions. In addition to taking calls, Culliford would stop to play with his children or shoot the breeze with colleagues. Yvan Delporte would appear, stash his bottle of Coke in the fridge, then stretch out on the studio floor "to think." All these routines affected Peyo's deadlines and he was infamous for chronic tardiness. Although he lived forty minutes' drive from Dupuis' print works, Peyo always delivered his boards there – at dawn.

This extreme schedule endured for half a decade. In 1968, recalls François Walthéry, "Delporte and Peyo would give me the work on Monday morning; it was due Tuesday. I would finish around three am and Nine would color the boards. Somewhere near four o'clock, we'd all climb into Peyo's Taurus. We'd take the boards to Yvan, so he could photocopy them. Then we'd all drive out to the printer. Once we were finally back, we'd get a steak at this place called the Saphir."

But, in 1968, Spirou's charmed world imploded. After two decades, Franquin gave up drawing the trademark strip Spirou and Fantasio. Despite his thirteen years of service, Yvan Delporte was fired. Then, Maurice de Bevere left – taking Lucky Luke to Pilote magazine. Peyo, who had venerated Morris almost as much as Hergé, was stunned by the defection. Coming home from a movie, Walthéry found him in tears. "Peyo met me at the door and he was so agitated! All he could say was, 'Do you know who's left us?"

Walthéry thought one of their close friends had died.

The night before his forty-first birthday, Peyo had a heart attack. The doctors demanded an end to his bohemian lifestyle – and they put him in bed for a month. To cheer him up, Yvan Delporte deployed a special remedy: an X-rated version of Johan et Pirlouit. This was a collaboration between two dozen artists and, every day, Peyo received a new installment. The cavalcade of topless princesses and Smurfs with erections helped take the cartoonist's mind off his health.

Meanwhile, the Smurfs were flourishing. In 1969, a cookie company sponsored their album Le Cosmoschtroumpf, which was followed by one for Kwatta chocolate (L'Apprenti Schtroumpf, in 1970). Peyo did these in between his usual Spirou series: 1968's Les Schtroumpfs et le Cracoucass (The Smurfs and the Howlibird) and 1973's Schtroumpf vert et Vert Schtroumpf. By the early '70s, he was at work on a big-screen animation. It was a project by Belvision, a local firm known for cartoon films that starred Tintin, Astérix, and Lucky Luke. Since Belvision were owned by Tintin's publisher, however, Charles Dupuis signed on to co-produce.

For his cinema debut, Peyo chose to re-adapt. He re-told the fifteen-year-old story of Peewit's magic flute, in which the Smurfs made their first-ever appearance. With Delporte handling music, Peyo spent two years on the piece. It was almost 1976 when La Flute à Six Schtroumpfs finally opened in Belgian cinemas. Five years had passed without a new Johan album and three without Peyo's art appearing in Spirou.

La Flute à Six Schtoumpfs, 1958

He tried to rectify that in 1976, with a story called La Soupe aux Schtroumpfs (Smurf Soup). But, this time, things proceeded at a glacial pace. Peyo's new assistant, Albert Blesteau, worried about him. "He was taking one pill to sleep and a different one to wake up."

The night before a German toy fair, Peyo's ulcer haemorrhaged. While an emergency transfusion saved his life, it also left the artist with hepatitis – then diabetes. Cartoonist Frédéric Jannin, a friend of Peyo's son, paid him a visit in hospital. Jannin was astonished when Peyo told him, "I have to get out of here, I don't have the time to die".

Marked by his early struggles, Peyo had never turned down work. But at the very moment this almost killed him, it also paid an unexpected dividend. Peyo cherished the story and made it into his personal myth.

In the artist's version, he owed it all to his figurines. One of their licensees was a chain of English service stations where, during the '70s, they caught a US visitor's eye. On the spot, he decided to import the miniatures. His statuettes were so successful they led to stuffed Smurf toys. One of these was purchased by NBC's Fred Silverman, then presented to his grand-daughter as a gift. Struck by the child's utter devotion to her plaything, the network director decreed he had to have the Smurfs.

In fact, Silverman had already heard from the SEPP, Dupuis' Societé d'Edition, de Presse et de Publicité. Whether or not his grand-daughter ever played a role, he made the decision to speak with Hanna-Barbera. When the pair sat down to negotiate, they were face-to-face with the Dutchman Freddy Monnickendam.

Monnickendam was a sales specialist hand-picked by Charles Dupuis. In 1981, after two years of talks, he concluded a deal between the SEPP, NBC, and Hanna-Barbera. In almost every sense, this agreement was good for Peyo. It gave Dupuis all the distribution rights in non-Anglophone countries. Additionally, any time the series topped American charts, NBC was obligated to commission a brand-new season. Peyo had approval over all the scripts and, within a one-week time frame, he had a veto.

Between 1981 and 1990, Hanna-Barbera made 256 episodes. The Smurfs (syndicated as Smurfs' Adventures) were sold in forty-seven countries. Although Peyo's rights had been well-defined, there was a stumbling block: he spoke no English. Delporte, fluent in the language, was his translator. But from the start, the disagreements were deep.

"One key problem," said Delporte, "was motive. The Americans might envision a Smurf inheriting money, which then filled the other Smurfs with envy. Or they would picture a Smurf finding some treasure and these riches causing problems in the village. Or… a Smurf would try and sell Papa Smurf's secret formula. Everything they proposed, every plot, revolved around money."

Peyo tried explaining that, for his characters, gain and greed were not even concepts. But these explanations were received as unthinkable. Says Delporte, "All they did was mutter behind Peyo's back. The view was 'This is all so sweet it's giving me cavities.'"

At the height of their success, Peyo and Hanna-Barbera were largely speaking through lawyers. When Peyo found the studio was working behind his back, things got even worse. The artist fought back by vetoing scripts en bloc, Hanna-Barbera fell behind with NBC and, in a panic, everyone looked to Delporte. However, by then, Peyo was also at odds with him.

While the artist wrestled with fame American-style, the house where he built his career disappeared. In 1985, after a long management crisis, Dupuis was sold to a set of linked entities: the Groupe Brussels Lambert, Hatchette Livre, and Editions Mondiale. The first two acquired its publishing and media rights – and Peyo suddenly found himself working for virtual strangers.

Now, trying to maintain control meant constant travel; rarely did the old gang of artists ever see each other. Peyo's regime became so punishing even his mental state began to suffer. Jean Roba remembered his tearful phone calls. "Peyo was the motor of this giant locomotive, travelling at top speed and pulling a whole crazy train… and he no longer even knew how to stop." Franquin put it differently: Peyo's blue creations had "eaten him alive."

Yet the Smurfs' global grip only tightened. In 1984, their twelfth album, Le Bébé Schtroumpf (Baby Smurf), earned its author a fortune. A year later, Peyo sought tax relief by moving to Switzerland. Culliford devolved Studio Peyo to his son, Thierry, and the Smurfs' management to his daughter, Veronique.

The artist still owed Dupuis one final album and, in 1988, he completed and delivered Les P'tits Schtroumpfs (The Little Smurfs). The next year, working with all-new assistants, he tried to replicate the Spirou he had known: by launching the first issue of a Smurfs magazine. But magazines based around cartoons were now in decline. Their market had been destroyed by albums and television.

Peyo's biggest project was a French theme park called Le Big Bang Schtroumpf. He had licensed his characters to a conglomerate, Sorepark, charged with reviving an old industrial site. But, after a bumper opening, their recipe failed. Within a year, the park had lost 104 million French francs (around $18 million) and, by 1990, it was bankrupt. Sorepark ceded management to the Belgian Groupe Walabi who, in 1992, lost their right to use the Schtroumpfs.

Peyo kept putting out albums during the 1990s. But his son Thierry struggled to distribute them. Looking for a new start, he and Peyo signed with Les Editions du Lombard – the publishing arm of Spirou's old rival Tintin. His contract obligated Peyo to four new books a year, but that was only the Smurfs. The artist also signed for three Johan albums and two that featured Benoît. The first to appear, in 1991, was Le Schtroumpf Financier (The Financial Smurf). It was a collaboration between Peyo and Thierry.

Benoît Brisefer (Steven Strong), Les Taxis Rouges, 1960

Le Schtroumpf Financier was very well-received. Yet it had tested Peyo's now-fragile strength. On Christmas Eve, 1992, he died of a heart attack. Culliford was 64.

Peyo's career was so fantastic it might have come from one of his sorcerers. But, as the exhibition shows, the formula was less mysterious than its ingredients. Just take one highly specific moment in time, add a crew of eccentric virtuosos, then marinate in hour-by-hour, day-by-day, night-by-night proximity. Throw in gallons of sweat and strain through restrictions: exigent editors, tight deadlines and a strict, old-fashioned code of behaviour.

The resulting innovations sprang from sheer enjoyment. Almost as humble as they were audacious, Spirou's real greats took success with a grain of schtroumpf. Theirs was an all-too-human brand of creativity – one hard to equal in our virtual world.

Many testaments to it exist but I like one from André Franquin. Along with Peyo, Jean Roba, and Maurice Tillieux, he was being honored at a French book fair. To reach more children, the organizers had scheduled their day's last appearance at a circus. The tired cartoonists were seated under its teeming big top when, said Franquin, "All the music suddenly stops and this voice booms out, 'There are four of them and you know them well! You know they're hilarious! Every week, they make you laugh until you cry! So, without further ado…' The crowd is going wild so, pasting on our modest smiles, we start to lift our sagging bottoms out of the chairs – just in time to see four chimpanzees bound into the ring. Here are the real professionals! They can juggle! They can balance plates! … They're a total treat!"

"After the monkeys," said Franquin, "it was our turn."

The exposition Peyo runs through October 28 at Paris' Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles

With many thanks to the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles, to exhibition curators José Grandmont and Hugues Dayez (author of the excellent biography Peyo l'Echanteur) and to François Walthéry. Also recommended: François Ayroles' cartoon masterpiece Moments Clés du Journal de Spirou (Dupuis, 2018), available both in print and as an e-book.

Final room of the Peyo exhibition, Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles

  1. For one thing, as art historian André Gunthert notes, one visual element "significantly contradicts" a racist interpretation: "Within 1960s Franco-Belgian comics, representations of Africans conform to a stereotype from colonial tradition, one that requires not only a dark skin color but also fleshy lips and that pidgin speech pattern known as 'petit nègre', such as that found in Tintin in the Congo and Astérix. (These characteristics are also found, for example, in Franquin's 1959 album Le Gorille a bonne mine.) If such African characters are practically absent from Peyo's stories, he did on the other hand use their characteristics to give his Schtroumpfs a "savage" appearance in 1970's Le Cosmoschtroumpf, where he reprises the graphic emphasis of the mouth for ethnic caricature. Had Peyo wanted to embody such "ethnic" Smurfs in 1963 [when the story appeared as an album], he would certainly have invoked this stereotype. Compared to these characters in Le Cosmoschtroumpf, the sartorial appearance of Les Schtroumpfs Noirs also implies they remain part of a civilized universe. Graphically, the Schtroumpfs Noirs bear neither the signature of the colonial tradition nor the characteristics permitting recognition of a supposed 'Africanité.'"

    One should add that in 1959, when Les Schtroumpfs Noirs first appeared, Belgium's colonial enterprise had not reached its end. It was 1960 when she granted independence to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; protectorates Rwanda and Burundi gained it two years later. With this colonial legacy, Belgian "ethnic" caricatures were never anodyne. But Gunthert is right to note that exporting Les Schtroumpfs Noirs to the US gave the story a different context. There, it appeared within perceptive traditions – and hostilities – born of American slavery. This necessarily altered both the understanding of "noir" and Peyo's portrayal of aggressive black Schtroumpfs.

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3 Responses to Behind the Blue: The Story of Peyo

  1. Adam says:

    >Just take one highly specific moment in time, add a crew of eccentric virtuosos, then marinate in hour-by-hour, day-by-day, night-by-night proximity. Throw in gallons of sweat and strain through restrictions: exigent editors, tight deadlines and a strict, old-fashioned code of behaviour.

    It seems the author is as guilty of projecting onto Peyo their own right-wing biases about something like the “beauty of work” as the American television executives who wanted to make the Smurfs all about money. And even by their own telling, it’s at odds with the facts.

    A strict, old-fashioned code of behavior? But the artists were bohemians managed by first a communist and later an anarchist. The World News is painted as being undermined by an attempt at unionization, while its cartoonists spend no time thinking about labor conditions. But then Peyo is repeatedly described as being a poor fit to the working conditions at the magazine, works too slowly, and whose attempt to adhere to them destroys his health. Cartoonists quit entirely or jump ship to other outlets, Delporte is fired without recourse, but I guess we’re to believe that everyone is still unbothered by the circumstances of their workplace. The resulting collapse of his community of peers emotionally and physically damages Peyo, but we return to this kind of line is the summary narrative?

  2. Bob says:

    You keep on calling Benoît Brisefer Steven Strong, but his name in the latest american translations is Benny Breakiron. If your readers are interested in taking a look at his adventures, it’s something that might be helpful to know. http://papercutz.com/kids-comics-graphic-novels/benny-breakiron

    By the way, Walthéry wasn’t the first of Peyo’s assistants ; Francis (Bertrand) preceded him. http://www.lambiek.net/artists/f/francis.htm

  3. Bob says:

    And about the Black Smurfs : plague is commonly called “peste noire” in french, a name that Peyo might have interpreted litteraly. Don’t forget that the Smurfs adventures are settled in Middle-Age so it would make sense. Of course it’s just my explanation but it always seemed so obvious to me that I never considered that there could be any other one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

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