On this day in 1958, the Smurfs first showed up in the funny pages. That’s distinct from the television series, The Smurfs. Same characters, but it took a while before they got off paper. And they didn’t have their own comic. They first appeared in Johan and Peewit — a Belgian comic created by Pierre “Peyo” Culliford. It was a medieval cartoon, like Don Quixote, in a way. Johan is a brave night who rushes into dangerous situations. Peewit is the court jester, but gets dragged along on Johan’s adventures. Whereas Sancho rides a donkey, Peewit rides a goat.
Like Peewit, the Smurfs are dwarfs, but of the blue variety. Frankly, I don’t find them nearly as interesting in Johan and (especially) Peewit. I want to run out and find some of the books. The Smurfs got their own strip a year after they first appeared. And the rest, as they say, is history. And like most history, they are racist. The enemy of the Smurfs, the evil magician Gargamel, is a stereotype of a greedy Jew. But more than that, there is the question of the “black Smurf.”
The first Smurf book was, Les Schtroumpfs Noirs. When it was translated to English, it was turned into, The Purple Smurf — with the requisite change in the coloring. You can see a comparison:
I found an interesting article at Simply Maya, 55 Years of Belgian Blues. They put Les Schtroumpfs Noirs in the context of its time. It was the first Smurfs book, and it came at an important time in Belgian history, “‘The Black Smurfs’ came at a time when colonial empires were falling and just three years earlier Belgian Congo had gained independence to form what became the Democratic Republic of Congo, after years of brutal rule under Belgian kings where millions of African people had been killed.” It’s funny how our unstated assumptions ooze out onto the comics page.