BRUSSELS—Belgians weren’t feeling blue on Oct. 23 as they held a series of Happy Smurfday celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the popular cartoon sons and daughters.
Legendary comic book characters the Smurfs are marking six decades of entertaining generations of children with tales of bravery, exploration, and adventure—but not without controversy.
To celebrate the anniversary, authorities in Brussels have turned the town blue. A special “Smurf Experience” has been laid on at the Brussels Expo park, where visitors can explore a real-life Smurf village.
Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was on hand at a popular city center hotel to officially unveil a Smurf-themed fresco, which has been painted onto the roof of a bar at the hotel.
“Like all Belgians, I grew up with the cartoons of Peyo,” Michel said, referring to Belgian comic artist behind the series, Pierre Culliford. “Happy 60th birthday to the Smurfs!”
Even the country’s national airline is getting involved, with Brussels Airlines painting one of its jets with the comic book’s main characters, including Smurfette as captain and Papa Smurf as her co-pilot.
The iconic characters who are blue, wear white peaked caps, and are famously three apples tall, first appeared on Oct. 23, 1958, as minor characters in a Belgian cartoon strip.
In the 60 years since they have become a billion-dollar success story, acquiring their own comic books and starring in a classic kids’ TV series, three films, and a franchise of video games.
The intrepid blue explorers show no signs of letting up with a revamped TV series, due to come out in 2021, already in the works in which the Smurf village will be made into a 3-D wonderworld.
The Smurfs were the brainchild of Culliford, who dreamed up an imaginary universe of more than 100 characters, each named after their own personality trait.
Peyo once revealed that he came up with the name for his cartoon creatures at dinner when he momentarily forgot the word for salt and asked a friend to pass the schtroumpf—the Belgian name for the Smurfs.
His fellow diner jokingly replied, “Here’s the schtroumpf—when you are done schtroumpfing, schtroumpf it back,” prompting the pair to spend the rest of that weekend speaking in “schtroumpf language.”
“He was obsessed by the characters because he wanted to control everything,” his daughter Veronique Culliford, who now controls the brand, told the German news agency DPA.
However, for all the innocent joy the Smurfs have brought children, some adults have observed a darker side to the comics with critics accusing the series of subliminally promoting communism, racism, anti-Semitism, and the belief that women have to have an ideal look and shape.
Observers have long suggested that Papa Smurf, with his broad bushy white beard, closely resembles the father of socialism Karl Marx, whilst the Smurf economy largely takes the form of a cooperative.
Others point to the first comic album—De Zwarte Smurfen—as a clear example of racism. In it, one of the Smurfs is bitten by an insect and turns black, at which point he starts talking gibberish and trying to bite the others.
The cartoon was only released in the United States as recently as 2010 and the color of the cannibal Smurf was changed to purple by the publishers to “avoid misunderstandings” about the message.
Meanwhile, the French sociologist Antoine Buéno has suggested that such stereotyping also extends to Jews, pointing to the main villain of the series, Gargamel, who has black eyebrows, a hooked nose, and a love of gold.
There have also been criticisms of the character Smurfette—one of the only female Smurfs—who started off as a villainous character with “stringy hair and ugly eyelashes” before being transformed by “plastic Smurfery” into a blonde bombshell, at which point “the Smurfs accepted and loved her.”
However, despite such controversies, the cartoons remain enduringly popular with audiences worldwide, with the series chalking up global retail sales of $1.5 billion a year.