PIERRE CULLIFORD was the Belgian cartoonist who, under the pen-name of 'Peyo', created one of the world's most successful comic strips, The Smurfs.
Alongside a considerable career as a weekly comic strip, the Smurfs appeared in a staggering total of 414 animated cartoon films produced for television between 1981 and 1990. And character merchandising, spread among 2,000 companies, accounted for dollars 5m in the single year of 1991 alone.
Peyo was born in Brussels in 1926, the son of an English father and a Belgian mother. After schooling he attended the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts before leaving, at the age of 17, to become an apprentice animator at a cartoon studio making advertising films for the cinema. Among his fellows at the studio was Maurice de Bevere, who as 'Morris' was to create the cowboy comic hero Lucky Luke, in 1946. A year later Peyo followed Morris's example and created his own first strip, Johan, the misadventures of a medieval pageboy. This ran for one year in the Belgian daily paper La Derniere Heure, and was followed in 1948 by Pied Tendre, the tale of an Indian tenderfoot brave in Mowgli, a magazine for boy scouts.
In 1954 Peyo followed his old partner Morris to the pages of the popular weekly comic Spirou, where he developed his first newspaper strip into a new weekly series entitled Johan et Pirlouit, in which he gave his pageboy a blundering companion. It was out of this series that Peyo evolved his most successful creations: 'Les Stroumpfs' or, as we came to know them, the Smurfs.
Set as ever in the medieval days which Peyo found so pleasurable to draw, the Smurfs are a race of blue pixies who wear floppy hats, long-johns, and little else, save for the only lady Smurf. Known as Smurfette, she sports a polka-dot skirt and high-heel shoes in the best Minnie Mouse manner. Smurfette is the sole object of affection for the entire Smurf tribe, believed to number a hundred, although the main members are (christened in Walt Disney's best Seven Dwarfs style) Hefty, Brainy, Vanity, Clumsy, Greedy, Lazy and Grouchy. Hereafter the Disney influence departs, as the leader of the Smurfs is Papa, a wise old magician, while their implacable enemy is Gargamel the Wizard, assisted by his black cat Azrael - a pair determined to rid the lush green forest and its mushroom dwellings of the entire Smurf race.
The Smurfs first came to the animated cartoon screen during the 1960s but it was not until the Eighties that the European success of the little blue fairy-folk caught the enterprising eyes of the American animation supremos William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Formerly the creators of MGM's immortal 'Tom and Jerry', Bill and Joe were now the kings of television animation, producing a wide range of cartoon characters from 'Huckleberry Hound' to 'The Banana Splits'. The Hollywood-based series premiered on NBC television in 1981, each half-hour programme being divided into two 12-minute adventures. Voice characterisations were by Hanna-Barbera's top team, starring Paul Winchell as the wicked Gargamel, Don Messick as the bearded Papa Smurf, Jonathan Winters as Grandpa, Brenda Vaccaro as Scruple, and the most famous female in the field of cartoon characters, June Foray, as Jokey. The ratings for the first series were the highest for any Saturday morning shows in eight years, and the highest for any NBC animated series for 11. The total run for the series was 10 years, virtually unprecedented in television animation, and in addition to the regular episodes included four half-hour and one hour-long specials. The titles of these included Smurfily Ever After and The Smurfic Games, the latter being nominated for an Emmy Award.
Although Peyo drew other strip cartoons, such as Poussy, a cute kitten created for the women's magazine Bonnes Soirees, and a nod towards the super-hero syndrome with Benoit Brisefer (1960), a little boy with mighty muscles, it is as the creator of the modern world's favourite fairy tales that he will be remembered.
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