Robot 6

‘Smurfs Anthology’ makes Smurfs bigger, better but not blacker

9781597074179_p0_v1_s600[1]Papercutz has been releasing its translated versions of Pierre “Peyo” Culliford’s classic Smurfs comics since 2010, and it’s the sort of publishing project that is so welcome that one doesn’t like to complain too loudly about some of the less important choices made in the republication.

I’ve only ever had two real complaints about Papercutz’s presentation of the comics, of which the publisher has released 16 slim volumes.

First, there was their size: At 9 inches tall and 6-and-a-half inches wide, the four- or five-tiered page layouts could result in Smurf-sized panels. The comics were never illegible or even all that hard to read, but with an artist of Peyo’s caliber, I and many other readers would have preferred to be able to see the pages and panels bigger, to better appreciate their construction and line work (this is the complaint I’ve heard most often regarding the new Smurfs line).

Second, there’s the lettering, particularly regarding sound effects: It had a tendency to look more cut-and-pasted than organic, drawing unwanted attention to itself and away from the story being told.

Papercutz just released the first new volume in a new Peyo series that should address those exact concerns, however: The Smurfs Anthology Vol. 1 is a hardcover 11-and-a-quarter inches high and 8-and-three-quarter inches wide.

Like the little $6 trades, it’s still a pretty outstanding value at just $20 for a 200-page hardcover with a half-dozen long stories, including the Smurfs’ rough-looking first appearance and probably the two most talked-about Smurfs stories of all time, “The Smurf King” and “The Purple Smurfs” (formerly Les Schtroumpfs Noirs, but more on that later).

But it has the size and durability of a for-grownups publishing project, and the bigger size eliminates the main complaint of the previous publications. These panels and pages are easier to see, easier to read and, most importantly, easier to scrutinize.

The increased size also helps the lettering, I think, as the presentation allows the sound effects to breathe … or at least gives the impression that is indeed the case.

For this initiative, Papercutz is putting the stories back in the order they first appeared, and including any and all Johan and Peewit tales in which the Smurfs appeared, although in this volume, for example, “The Magic Flute,” one such Johan and Peewit story, is the final story in the collection, after the Smurfs stories. (So I guess the plan is to publish the Smurfs albums in order, followed by a Johan and Peewit story guest-starring the Smurfs as a chaser?)

This volume also includes a pair of prose introductions by “Smurfologist” Matt. Murray (not a typo; there’s a period at the end of the name “Matt” for some reason I don’t understand), to “The Purple Smurfs” and “The Smurf King,” furthering this book’s for-grownups bona fides.

But that brings up a new problem, and perhaps another complaint that North American grown-ups might have with Papercutz’s handling of these comics: The Purple Smurfs are, as you can see on the cover, still purple rather than black.

purple-smurfs

See, in 1959, the little blue humanoids who guest-starred in a few of Peyo’s Johan and Peewit comics, graduated to their own spinoff status, with a story titled Les Schtroumpfs Noirs, or “The Black Smurfs.”

When a fly bites a hapless Smurf on the tail, his blue skin turns black, his pupils turn red, and he grits his teeth and begins hopping around, shouting “Gnap!” over and over. Then he bites another Smurfs tail, and the same thing happens, until a zombie-apocalypse plague has struck the Smurf Village (almost a decade before Night of the Living Dead!), until Papa Smurf is the last Smurf smurfing — er, standing, desperately working on a cure in his besieged laboratory.

When American producers started adapting Smurfs stories into Saturday morning cartoons at the dawn of the 1980s, a problem with this scenario immediately became apparent: How would the new audience of children react to a storyline in which a Smurf’s skin turning black transforms them into crazy, angry, mindless biting machines …?

So the Black Smurfs became the Purple Smurfs on TV, and, when Papercutz released its translation of the comic, the Black Smurfs were Purple Smurfs, and purple they remain.

Should they still be purple though, even in this particular collection, which seems so geared toward adult aficionados of comics more so than children?

As I mentioned, this story is prefaced by an article by Murray, in which he explains the color changes and contextualizes them. Peyo’s inspiration for the infection sweeping through this medieval mushroom village was the medieval Black Plague. The book includes the original cover, on which it’s clear the Black Smurfs are black Smurfs and not African-American Smurfs. I can’t imagine there existing much confusion among 21st-century adult comics readers, particularly after Murray’s preemptive preface.

There’s certainly nothing approaching the casual racism of the depictions of black and brown folks or native cultures seen in some of Osamu Tezuka’s works, or Will Eisner’s The Spirit, or Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics, or (especially) Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comics, all of which publishers as various and DC Comics and Fantagraphics have made available to today’s adult readers in unaltered form, despite the cringes they might induce or how hard it might make some of the stories to read for modern audiences. (I don’t shock easy, but Gottfredson’s cannibals in the “Trapped on Treasure Island” story came as quite a surprise, and made the reading of the story pretty hard to accomplish).

Each of the above featured actual caricatures and jokes based on racial and ethnic biases and stereotypes, and while there may have been discussions among today’s readers as to why these images exist or how harshly we should judge the creators for producing them, we seem to have survived them all, and without even so much as the sort of fireworks that, say, Tintin in the Congo has set off in recent years.

The Black Smurfs, on the other hand, are simply the color of ink, and it would take either a deliberate misreading or skepticism of the sincerity of Murray to see them as any sort of statement on race.

I think we could have taken The Black Smurfs in this album, is what I’m saying. But, as with the smaller-sized albums, this is material I’m more thankful is here and available in this form than whether or not it’s available in an ideal form.

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7 Comments

You’d think with the number of people actively looking to be offended by anything, the color purple would be off the table, too.

I think they SHOULD continue to have the once black Smurfs as purple, even with an adult collector audience. Every market has its cultural status affect the way entertainment and advertising is edited and so US & Canada should be no exception. I’m not a fan of people looking under rocks to find examples of racism, sexism, etc. in a day and age where we’ve made so much positive progress to the point where we’re “almost there”, but this is one of those cases where it really stings and were the author still alive, they’d most definitely be open to the change if it were suggested to him.

Changing the color from Black Smurfs to Purple Smurfs in this context was a prudent move in the ’80′s. Fast forward to 2013 it still IS. As a African American, I personally am not offended. However, collectively the African American community as a whole, [or at the very least a portion of it] COULD be offended even now. Despite popular belief we do not live in a post racial society, as the closing of predominately Black public schools in inner cities across the U.S., The predominately Black city of Detroit under the control of the state of Michigan instead of their own duly elected officials, and the racially charged real scandal “NYC stop and frisk” debacle currently raging in the media and the courts, will attest. Bringing the issue full circle, there is a subtext to the presumed “black male aggression” or “Angry black man” the African American community is extremely sensitive to. Having a “Blue” Smurf turn to a “Black” Smurf” and become crazed and zombie-like could potentially send out the wrong message. Or subtlety re-enforce old beliefs, no matter how benign the greater majority thinks on the subject. Best to err on the side of caution and happily let PURPLE be the new “BLACK”.

Interesting article. On this subject, I usually reference the writings and thoughts of (the late) Emru Townsend on this:

“To the animation purist, this is unacceptable. It amounts to revising history, pretending that the ugliness of racism completely bypassed animation. But how do you reconcile the images put forth by these brilliant directors and producers? [For example], what do you do when Bob Clampett’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves, with its unparalleled humor and frenetic timing, is also a pastiche of every black stereotype known to man? Do you laugh or cry?”

I did some writing with Emru for a few years and he taught me a lot about interpreting cartoons and cartooning as a consumer and as a black individual, of which I am both. Personally, I side with him on this, and hate to see a legitimate work of art censored for the sake of: “Well, if I think you think you might be offended, not only should the artwork never have existed, but we should pretend that it never existed to begin with.” To me, that’s wrong, and kind of an insult in and of itself. As an informed adult, I’m somehow unable to process this information logically?

I just read through Eisner’s how-to on Sequential Art and there are plenty of racist caricatures in that book to go around. But as an instructional book, Eisner still delivers a pretty solid publication on the mechanics of comic book storytelling. Last year I read Tezuka’s BARBARA and there are entire “episodes” (chapters) devoted to ugly haracterizations of voodoo, black people, and the occult… but BARBARA is still, altogether, an absolutely phenomenal work of manga.

Interesting reactions to “The Purple Smurfs” in THE SMURFS ANTHOLOGY. We actually had asked for permission to run “The Black Smurfs,” thinking that the introduction would place the story in the proper historical context and that it would work well in the more adult context of THE SMURFS ANTHOLOGY format, but the folks at Lafig Belgium requested that we stick with “The Purple Smurfs.” As Mr. Mozzocco noted, by running the original covers (and the introduction) in THE SMURFS ANTHOLOGY, it’s crystal clear that the story was originally “The Black Smurfs.” I don’t believe that “The Black Smurfs” had ever been translated into English, and that Papercutz was the first to publish that story as “The Purple Smurfs,” following Hanna-Barbera’s lead. I’m also assuming since “The Purple Smurfs” aired while Peyo was still alive, it was done with his blessing. Obviously, this is a very sensitive subject, and it’s not our goal to offend anyone. After reading the comments here, I think it probably was for the best to keep the Purple Smurfs purple.

Another point we took into consideration is that, Black Plague references aside, Peyo’s choice of black was almost arbitrary, the main point being that the plagued Smurfs needed to just not be blue. Changing that “not blue” to purple seems just as well, especially since, as Jim pointed out, Peyo was OK with the change.

I also worked on the Mickey collections from Fantagraphics and that situation was different — the racist caricatures in those stories really were what they were (not just an unfortunate accident), so the only option was to either leave them out or leave them in with some contextual explanation. Altering them in some way wouldn’t have been true to Gottfredson’s intentions.

Great discussion — I think it’s important to keep revisiting this whenever we bring out new archival reprints of older comics.

I completely disagree with the changing of the colour of the black smurfs and agree with the author’s point of view.

Although, it seems like a logical choice, having read the comments above, I find the black smurfs visually more interesting and certainly more menacing, than the washed-out purple ones. Having read the original story and the sample story on amazon, I thought that it changed it quite a bit

I originally read the story as a kid during the 80s unedited (and printed at the original size), and although I’m not black, it referenced mainly zombies for me and not people of African descent. Actually, the idea hadn’t even cross my mind, until the recent articles about the subject. I guess we all see what we want to see…

It’s a shame really, because the collection looks quite good, other than that….

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