The Black Smurfs. Peyo, racism and GNAP! GNAP!

Bzzz… Bzzz… GNAP! GNAP!

While the Smurfs are working on the construction of the bridge over the Smurf River, led by the dean of the village, Great Smurf, a Smurf who is lazier than the others, is caught sleeping instead of working. Great Smurf then sends him into the woods to look for a large pole, but here he is bitten on the tail by the terrible Bzz Fly, which turns him into a Black Smurf. Out of his mind, aggressive, violent, and with a vocabulary reduced to a single “Gnap!”, his only aim is to bite the other Smurfs's tails to turn them into Black Smurfs.

Is Black Smurfs a racist comic strip?

It first appeared on 2 July 1959, in the form of a fold-out mini-story attached to issue 1107 of the weekly Le journal de Spirou (published by Editions Dupuis) – a 44-page holiday special – and was then republished in an album in 1963, along with two other short stories, The Flying Smurf (Le Schtroumpf volant) and The Smurf Thief (Le voleur de Schtroumpfs), The Black Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs noirs) is the first story to feature the little woodland dwellers created by the Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford, aka Peyo, as the absolute protagonists, after their growing success during their appearances in the 1950s in the stories of Johan et Pirlouit (John and Solfamì in Italy), set in the Middle Ages. The story is scripted with Yvan Delporte, editor of Spirou and already co-creator with Franquin of Gaston Lagaffe, who with Peyo will collaborate on the scripts of the stories of the little woodland dwellers until the mid-1970s.

The story stages an apocalyptic situation in the peaceful village of the Puffi, whose division into two distinct “factions” – Black Buffs and Blue Buffs – puts the very survival of the entire tribe at risk. Can this be considered a racist scheme? While it is true that the juxtaposition of two distinct groups, identified by the colours black and blue, may suggest a racist stereotype, there is one detail that does not respect this preconception: the epidemiological transmission. The difference between the two parties is in fact due to a contagion caused by an external factor (the bite of the Bzz fly), which causes the infected Smurf to infect the entire population, bringing the blue smurf people to the brink of extinction. This is despite multiple attempts by the Big Smurf to stop the infection. Of course, this dynamic can be associated with the theory of grand replacement, explained very well and simply by Renaud Camus in his “Le grand replacement” (2011): “there is a people and soon, within a generation, another people arrives in its place”. But this theory is mainly related to the alleged Arab-Muslim conspiracy, which is relatively recent and therefore too 'modern' to be applied to Peyo's album. Part of this reinterpretation is also due to the diffusion of the characters overseas, where the work of the Belgian author had to deal with the cultural context of the United States. The little blue elves landed there in 1976, when the American entrepreneur Stuart R. Ross saw them in Belgium and decided to agree with Peyo and Editions Dupuis to get the North American distribution rights for the characters, who shortly afterwards appeared as puppets, dolls, figurines and various gadgets, produced by the Californian *Wallace Berrie and Co. *, and then came to television in 1981 with a cartoon series produced by Hanna-Barbera studios (The Ancestors, Tom & Jerry, Scooby Doo, Top Cat and a host of other characters, all very well known and loved by the public), simply called The Smurfs (the name used in English-speaking countries), which aired on NBC for nine seasons from 1981 to 1989, for a total of 258 episodes (divided into 419 stories) and 7 specials. The production imposed a change of colour so that, for American audiences, the Black Puffins became the Purple Puffins. It should be noted that this version was exported practically all over the world, as the animated series became even more popular than the comic series. The US publisher Papercutz instead published the first English translation of the comic book album, entitled The Purple Smurfs, which mixes Peyo's original version with that of the animated series, re-colouring the infected smurfs purple. However, this highlights the fact that the alleged racism contained within The Black Smurfs is limited only to the outward appearance of the characters: the change of colour is in fact enough to erase all traces of them while leaving the story unchanged.

To “complicate” things, the publication of the book “Le Petit Livre bleu: analyse politique de la société des Schtroumpfs” (Hors Collection, 2011), has been added. (Hors Collection, 2011), also published in Italy under the title “Il libro nero dei Puffi. La società dei Smffi tra stalinismo e nazismo” (Mimesis, 2012). (Mimesis, 2012), by the sociologist and political scientist Antoine Buéno.

Peyo, over the years, has been accused of a variety of evils embedded within the stories of his “blue little men”. From racism to homophobia, from misogyny to antisemitism, from communist propaganda to Nazi propaganda and even to masonry: in the “palmarès” of criticisms collected by the Belgian author there is room for a bit of everything. With a good dose of humour and specifying from the outset that it was never the intention of the Belgian cartoonist to disseminate such ideas through his works, in his essay, Buéno analyses the reasons for these accusations. However, the “issue” becomes “thorny” when he shows that the accusations made against Peyo's work can be included in the Puffi stories. This, which is unacceptable for fans of Belgian bande dessinée, has triggered a diatribe that has even led to death threats against the French writer, guilty of having “dared” to try to destroy what for many is a real institution. On the other hand, if one is not a fanatical follower of the little blue creatures, or simply has a (minimal) critical sense and a little humour, one can enjoy a brilliant and interesting read at the same time, in some ways even instructive, which does not disrespect the work of the Belgian author, proving instead to be more respectful than many other analyses or adaptations (the American one). An essay that can make people read the Smurfs with a different eye, as well as entice those who do not know the characters well to read them. In short, an almost parodic piece of writing, which (too) often is interpreted with absolute value.

Certainly, interpreting the world created by Peyo as a model of a totalitarian utopia with references to Stalinist and/or Nazi doctrines (depending on who is analysing it...) does not seem to be serious. ) does not seem to be serious, the hypotheses of racism raised against the first story of the Smurfs, staging the antagonism between two groups differentiated by the colour of their skin – that of the Blue Smurfs, peaceful, serene and dedicated to the arts, against that of the Black Smurfs, violent, aggressive and fierce – seems instead to be more consistent. Several critics emphasise the (alleged) similarities between the aggressiveness and lack of a language of the Black Buffs, who are also capable of “cannibalistic” tendencies (Gnap!). (Gnap!), with the stereotypical portrayal of Africans in colonial Europe (Zaire, a Belgian colony in Africa, became autonomous only the year after the publication of the insert with the story), comparing them with what we saw in Tintin in Congo (1931), the second album of the adventures of the young reporter created by the Belgian author Georges Remi, aka Hergé.>br> The story of Hergé is indeed controversial, but it should be placed in a very different historical context, thirty years older. Moreover, the Smurfs are anthropomorphic characters and not human, as in the story of Hergé, whose representation is instead “faithful” to the stereotype deriving from the colonial tradition, which attributes them a dark skin colour, full lips and the “classic” language of “cool”. Obviously, the stories of Peyo are not spared anti-Semitism, represented by the figure of the wicked wizard Gargamel, with his taste for gold, or the sexism of Puffetta, a female archetype with flowing blond hair and a seductive look (even though she was originally brunette and ugly).

Analysing the plot of Black Smurfs, one is struck by the similarity with that of the post-apocalyptic science fiction horror classic I Am Legend (1954) – also published in Italy under the title I Vampires – by the American writer Richard Matheson, an absolute master of the genre. Considered one of the forefathers of undead apocalypses, the book tells the story of Robert Neville, the last remaining human being, after an epidemic has transformed living creatures into bloodthirsty vampires, who leave their shelters at night to seek nourishment, attacking humans (Neville). It is easy to see in this situation an analogy with Peyo's story: the contamination of the health through the bite of an infected person and the subsequent transformation to a primordial state, the loss of the ability to express oneself through speech, the aggression and the change of colour due to the mutation. There are also experiments to find a solution to the epidemic, the deception of one of the infected Smurfs pretending to be healthy – inspired by the character of Ruth, the woman Neville meets, who he believes to be like him, but belongs to a new species of beings halfway between humans and vampires – and the final assault that will make even the Big Smurf succumb, just as Robert Neville will have to yield to the overwhelming strength of his enemies. It's interesting (extraordinary?) that a novel such as Matheson's could have been the inspiration for a comic book intended primarily for a young – if not very young – audience, and how well it worked. And still does.

So, to return to the original question, is Black Smurfs (and Schtroumpf more generally) a racist comic?

From the point of view of structural and institutional racism, judging by the success of The Smurfs overseas, where the issue has always been more heartfelt and the conflict associated with it is very important, it seems clear that the calls made to Peyo about the issue are more of a “lenient” nature, even if they justify (in part) the caution of the publishers. As proof of this, the fact remains that it was enough to change the colour of the infected Smurfs to remove any idea of racism from the album, maintaining all the strength and zombie apocalypse fear of the original.

Ultimately, Black Smurfs is a strong, well-constructed and excellently executed story. Graphically beautiful, even if not yet at the level of the cleanliness of the later stories, it uses a good dose of black humour, which relies on the intelligence of those who read it (something unfortunately not taken for granted, nowadays) and which, more than sixty years after its first publication, still retains all its strength.