I'm a very excited eight year old boy today. I'm holding two Smurfs comic books in my hand. The first one that I've read is pretty much everything I expected from them. The 34 year old critic in me has some observations, as well, but the overall outlook for this series is good.
The first book in the new reprint series from NBM's Papercutz imprint is titled "The Purple Smurf." It's a collection of three short stories, the first of which gives the book its title and runs 20 pages. It's a manic piece of comic book storytelling, where a purple mosquito bites a Smurf, turning him purple. That Smurf bites another Smurf, turning him purple, and the madness quickly spreads virally. This story was the basis of an episode of the animated series back in the 80s. I still had vague memories of that. Thankfully, the whole thing can be found in reruns on The Boomerang Channel or, if you're a member of the 21st century, you probably know where to find it on-line, copyright be damned. Seeing it today, I'm amazed by how they did take little bits and pieces of the comic and translated them directly to the screen. The bridge the Smurfs were working on in the cartoon show is almost directly lifted from a panel in the original comic. Some - maybe most! - dialogue bits, some beats are borrowed from the comic. Reading the comic while watching the TV show is very educational. It's not a literal translation from the comic to the TV show, but the TV series was scripted off a different translation of the script, so some minor differences are to be expected.
But there are major differences. The cartoon show was much more explicit in their Smurf variations. They didn't all look exactly alike. In the comic, aside from the Brainy Smurf character wearing glasses, there were no physical differences. There were no regular props being uses, tattoos on the arms, or anything else. NBM is printing these chronologically, so I suppose that might be a later development I just don't know about yet.
The other big difference in the comic book versus the cartoon show: While the comic often - but not always - cuts away from the actual act of a Smurf biting another Smurf on the tail, the TV show explicitly cut away from the act. I'm sure somewhere in the Standards and Practices manual, there's an entry for "Nobody shall bite anyone else in the butt or tail." NBM shows a panel sequence of a Purple Smurf biting a blue Smurf in the butt on their title page. I love you, NBM.
Anyway, "The Purple Smurf" is "28 Days Later" told with little blue creatures, running around looking for a cure to the zombie virus, until only one Smurf is left. It's a fun up and down roller coaster ride, with a cute ending that is somewhat believable. You know, "believable" for a Smurf comic.
Backing up a little bit: The first thing I noticed when I flipped through the books is that it reminded me of "Asterix." There's a similar art style here, with the panel-packed pages, the thin black lines, and the small village with thatched roofs and surrounding woodlands. Peyo's artwork is very simple, particularly compared to Asterix's Albert Uderzo. The Smurfs are fairly repetitive creatures. I can't imagine drawing a book filled with them wouldn't be artistically frustrating after a while, but Peyo does it here and continued doing it for many years. At times, it's almost a master class in posing figures on a page. The backgrounds are often sparse, but the characters are almost always shown in full figures on every panel, acting out the plot. Their feet land on a line just above the bottom of the panel, when standing up. During some of the talking heads scenes, you may only get a half figure, but those are rare exceptions. These characters are always doing something in every panel, so the more expressive full body poses are called for. It's great to see a comic with a story made for a comic book.
The second story, in particular, is made for comics. It's "The Flying Smurf," (20 pages long) which chronicles one Smurf's efforts to be the first Smurf to fly. It's a funny progression of gags, not unlike a Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon. String together a bunch of random attempts, try to build up on them, and create a little running gag along the way, if you can. It might not be high art, but it's skillfully done, if simply so. Everything is visual: the hot air balloon, the catapult, the stitched wings, the broomstick, etc. You need to look at the art to get all the gags, though there's also a nice layer of dialogue on top that doesn't compete, but adds to the story. I like the way various wronged Smurfs along the way pile up.
The final and shortest (eight pages) tale, "The Smurf and His Neighbors," tells the tale of the Smurf who can't get a good night's sleep due to his neighboring Smurfs, and so moves out into the forest, builds a new house in an old tree, and then discovers, predictably, that the grass isn't always greener. This one is a lot more dialogue driven, but the art is nice. It's not just another tale of a bunch of look-a-like blue guys running around a mushroom-infested village. Its greatest asset is that it's short enough to be over before becoming drawn out for the sake of a cheap gag somewhere.
The big hang up that I had with this new series when it was announced was the format. Like most Franco-Belgian comics, The Smurfs were doomed to be reprinted in the States at a much smaller size than originally intended. For Papercutz, it's smaller than a North American comic, though larger than manga-sized. It measures out to 6.5 inches by 9 inches.
Part of the glory of those European comics, for me, is the large size to emphasize the art. With larger page sizes, artists put more panels on a page, and more art. When you shrink that down, you eliminate the reason the artists chose the specific panel density that they used, and the storytelling is compromised.
For The Smurfs, though, it's not a problem. The stories are told in five tiers of panels, so the art is small, but it isn't as detailed as, say, a Francois Schuiten "Hollow Grounds" graphic novel. "Smurfs" art is less concerned with detail, and more gesture. Whole pages often lack backgrounds, but the storytelling never suffers for it.
A second book, "The Smurfs and the Magic Flute" (upon which the Smurfs movie was based) is being released at the same time as the second volume, even though it came out well before "The Purple Smurf." The reason for this is sound: This is the first appearance of the Smurfs, and they appeared as supporting characters in a different "Spirou" anthology series. It would be a jarring start to the series, especially to people who just want to relive their childhood and aren't so interested in the history. As editor Jim Salicrup points out in the first volume, the Smurfs don't appear until the second half of "The Magic Flute." It's definitely interesting to see that original story, though, just to get an idea of how Peyo drew human characters and how they act. Flipping through the book now, I am a bit disappointed that there are some pages so dense with Smurfs that the smaller page size is a hindrance. We'll see how it impacts the reading when I get to it this week.
The good news is that the books are packaged well. The white paper stock is heavy and glossy; The artwork shines on it. The cardboard covers are solid, and the binding doesn't feel weak at all. The bad news is that I can't give you an exact publication date. (This happens a lot with books printed in China and sent back on the ubiquitous slow boat from the Asian mainland.) The fact that I have a copy in my hands means that it'll be out shortly. So look for these books at some point in September. The third book, "King Smurf" is scheduled for December.
It's a Smurftastic time to be alive!
WHAT LAST WEEK'S PODCAST WOULD HAVE BEEN
On account of the fact that I never recorded the podcast last week, I thought I'd take this opportunity to give those of you who aren't listening a chance to read what it's all about. I made my notes for the show, so let's expand on them in text form.
The glue that currently holds the show together is a Top Ten list for each week. These days, it's just a list of ten items, and doesn't even fall in any specific order. The items are prompted by the new comic releases of the week, and spark all sorts of random topics and discussions. Here are the ten from last week, then:
1. Archaia released their "Fraggle Rock" hardcover edition, collecting the recent mini-series for just $20. The book is a smaller, slightly squarish compilation of the materials and they look great. I only read one of the issues in the book originally, so it's mostly new to me and largely wonderful. I can't qualify how to judge this, but there's something wonderful when a pen-and-ink drawing brings a puppet to life, moreso than an actual person. The likenesses work out better.
2. "Darkwing Duck" #1 got its second printing last week, for those not fast enough to jump on the book the first time. IDW has since also announced that they will be publishing a "Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers" comic, which is exciting news. I think that the prospect of a "Bonkers" comic is still completely far-fetched, but I'm rooting for "TaleSpin" or "Gummy Bears" next. I think those would be the most likely.
Confession time: I never got into "Darkwing Duck." It didn't do anything for me. Part of the problem is that the animation was a severe decline from what we had on DuckTales. Even with Launchpad on the series, I never warmed up to it. I preferred the DuckTales episode where Uncle Scrooge became The Masked Mallard, instead.
3. Dynamite released a "Green Hornet" issue, an annual for that series, and a hardcover collection of the same series. As the CBR Reviews team will tell you, I'm awful at keeping all these green characters straight. Hornet, Lantern, Arrow - I'm swapping Green names around all the time. So while Dynamite may appear to put out too many "Green Hornet" series, I'm still an evolutionary step backwards and can't keep the other "Green" characters' names straight.
4. Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet" got its third volume from Scholastic last week. As I believe Tom Spurgeon pointed out, "Amulet" probably gets more readers from library sales than the combination of all of Marvel and DC's output. If you're looking for outreach to non-Direct Market regulars for the art form of sequential storytelling, I think Kibuishi's art is a welcoming style. Couldn't ask for a better ambassador on that count.
5. "Avengers: The Children's Crusade" and "Scarlet" both had second issues published on a bi-monthly schedule. If these two titles didn't have big names behind them or long-awaited storylines, could they maintain a bi-monthly scheduled without losing a bunch of readership? I have a real problem with the bi-monthly scheduling many comics suddenly find themselves on, and I believe I've talked about that in the column before. Simple fact: Bi-monthly is a lot of Wednesdays. It kills momentum. If your serialization is so spread out that people can't keep the previous issue in mind long enough to enjoy the next issue, you're creating trouble. You'd be better off waiting until you were far enough ahead and then going monthly.
6. "Stumptown" #4 came out from Oni Press this week. Its fans only wish the series were bi-monthly...
7. Moonstone published three different "Phantom" comics. Doesn't that seem awkward, as Dynamite's new series is just starting?
8. "I Am An Avenger" #1 gets a special mention for including a "Squirrel Girl" story. Bonus: a "Pet Avengers" story written and drawn by their creator, Chris Eliopoulos.
9. Eight different "Scott Pilgrim" t-shirts in a variety of sizes made their way to comic shops, just in time for the movie to leave theaters officially. I betcha they wish they had shipped those units a month ago.
10. If Gordon Ramsey is the CSI of FOX, does that make Mike Mignola the Gordon Ramsey of Dark Horse? He's built himself quite a little home over there, including three releases for September 1st: "Hellboy: The Storm" #3, The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects" hardcover, and "Baltimore: The Plague Ships" #2. At least "B.P.R.D." didn't ship, too. It might have been dark and shadowy overkill.
So, as you can see, the new podcast is partly a serious discussion of the comic news items of the day, and partly a reminder of some neat stuff out there, combined with the occasional quip.
New comics come out on Thursday this week, don't forget!
One last note that didn't fit in anywhere else this week: For another review of the Vince Colletta book I took a look at last week, check out Alan David Doane's review. We agree on an awful lot, but I think he's better at putting some of those feelings on paper that I struggled more with.
Next week: More Pipeline!