Black Smurfs: The Birth Of Modern Zombie Fiction
In my first few weeks at college (sometime back around the Mesolithic era), I remember being flushed with the joy…
In my first few weeks at college (sometime back around the Mesolithic era), I remember being flushed with the joy of sitting around a table with friends, and together, gleefully over-analysing the shows that we had loved as children with our newfound, half-misunderstood academic jargon.
We handily rationalised away He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) as the colourful delusions of a spoiled young socialite, Prince Adam, who was clearly a raging drug addict.* As we saw it, Adam – after taking some ‘Power of Grayskull’ (total euphemism) – would lose himself in a world of paranoid hallucinations, only to see his personal demons made manifest as hairy bodybuilders and hideous fluorescent beasts. In fact, poor Skeletor was probably a sponsor Adam’s parents had hired to clean up his act. Adam’s sworn ‘enemy’ was always trying to steal He-Man’s powers after all (trying to convince him to pull out of this narcotic death-spiral, more like), and as thanks he gets pictured as a flamboyant Grim Reaper. Nice.
The Smurfs (1981), we decided, was a subversive, indoctrinating endorsement of Communism. The clues were there. In Smurf village everyone has their assigned roles in a working class that functions to serve the greater good. Papa Smurf, the leader distributing all that material wealth based upon need, is depicted wearing a red cap. Brainy always gets booted out of the community whenever he sneaks into Papa’s private hoard of literature and starts trying to educate himself above his station. Even Gargamel, always trying to turn the Smurfs into gold, could be a symbol of Western Capitalism, trying to lure these Communist faithfuls away from their cooperative social structure and into doom…**
As we sat around riffing on these analyses, spooling out the connective tissue of each metaphorical leap, we thought that we had broken new ground – unravelled a mystery with a heretofore undiscovered interpretive key. It was… genius. Stupid, pointless, momentary genius. And we were laughing ourselves giddy. …This was, of course, before the time of Google (yes, as hard as it is to recall now, there was a time before Google), where a 0.00013 second search of the terms ‘Communism’ and ‘Smurf’ would have immediately (or in 0.00013 seconds) obliterated our smug, pioneering reverie.
My slightly tangential point is: The Smurfs have been accused of many things over the years – as this cackling table of cartoon revisionists exhibit. Some have indeed seen them as a subversive endorsement of Communism; some have seen them as an animated metaphor of a creepy hippie commune (‘Hey, put on a shirt, Hefty! And I think the FDA wants to check the chemical composition of those ‘Smurfberries’ you’re cultivating, Farmer Smurf’); some have lamented the mutilation of language that inevitably occurs when you replace every third word with ‘Smurf’. (I mean, is it as a verb? A noun? An adjective? I heard one of them once use it as a preposition. It was enough to make me lose myself in a fit of Smurfing profanity.)
But one thing for which, until recently, I was unaware that I had Smurf Village to thank, was its impact upon the modern Zombie genre.
(This could well be old news to many people currently reading this post and rolling their eyes at my ignorance – but it was a surprising revelation to me. So please bare with my naiveté as I chase this realisation down…)
Like Vampires before them, Zombies are incredibly hot right now. The Walking Dead (after a second season slump) is once again winning rave reviews on television; World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, has become a bestselling work of popular fiction and is coming soon to a cinema near you; narrative collisions like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have given birth to a whole new shelf-space for genre pastiche in bookstores (whether you want them to or not); videogames like Left for Dead, The Last of Us, DayZ, Call of Duty’s zombie modes, Dead Space, everysinglegameanywhereever, have embraced zombies as metaphors, as narrative devices, as bullet sponges; and zombies have even seeped into political campaigns, such as in Joss Whedon’s hilarious Mitt Romney ‘endorsement’ for President in 2012.*** It has seemingly never been a better time to be an aficionado of the zombie genre – or rather, a devotee to zombie fiction has never had so much material to consume.
When one thinks of zombies, the first images that springs to mind are likely blood, gore, rotting flesh, and head cavities popped open like salad bowls to expose their tasty brains… A tale about magical woodland sprites that live harmoniously in mushrooms is probably not top of the list, but in fact these creatures came to offer one of the earliest articulations of the modern zombie fiction popularised by George A. Romero’s revolutionary Night of the Living Dead (1968) – a text that itself was reiterated upon in his canon of sequels, and that came to inform the countless other works (28 Days Later; Shaun of the Dead; Warm Bodies) that have emerged in their wake.
The Smurfs (or Les Schtroumpfs) were originally created by Belgian comic artist Peyo in 1958. They were a spin off from Peyo’s earlier strip, Johan and Peewit (Johan et Pirlouit), seen for the first time when the titular characters encountered a group of tiny blue pixie surrogates in white clothing. The Smurfs were a hit, and soon got their own strip that elaborated upon who these creatures were, where they lived, their currency (communists, remember?), and what their daily adventures were like. And it was in their very first solo adventure, ‘The Black Smurfs’ (‘Les Schtroumpfs Noirs’), that they would unwittingly establish all of the hallmarks that have come to typify the zombie genre.****
Within the story, one of the Smurfs (I shall call him: ‘Nonspecific Smurf’) gets stung by a bug that turns his skin black.***** With this transformation his personality is wiped away, and he instantly becomes an insatiable, non-verbal predator. He sets off on a path of destruction, biting the other Smurfs on the tail (with the nondescript sound of ‘Gnap!‘) and likewise infecting them. By the end of the story the whole village is overrun, every single Smurf has been infected by the plague no matter how desperately they ran for freedom… Until, at the very last second, an antidote brewed by Papa Smurf is accidentally released (actually after Papa himself has been bitten and turned), and at last all of the Smurfs can revert back to themselves, allowing normality to at last be restored.
…Yeah, that’s right: they were all infected (or ‘gnapped‘, I guess). The whole village was lost. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
As this brief glimpse at Peyo’s end-of-days reveals, The Smurfs have always exhibited all the hallmarks of modern zombie fiction, and this – their first adventure printed a decade before Romero’s defining take on the genre – actually offers the first and most pure articulation of that structure…
After all, at its heart, like all horror fiction, the zombie genre is more about making manifest human fears and neurosis, and playing them out through the hyperbolic lens of an encounter with an otherworldly beast. Vampires are frequently about confronting our latent sexuality and narcissism: all the way back to Dracula these creatures have been typified by an erotic, preening affectation, and ever since remain riddled with angst for being eternally young and beautiful and super-powered (yeah, I really feel for you Edward, you’re so deep). Werewolves are the animalistic and primal in our psyche given license by the whim of the natural elements. Split personality beasts like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde can be seen to explore the dangers of the uninhibited id let loose.
Superficially, zombies are always about the mass, about the horde. They embody our fears of mortality and death (what of us lingers after we are gone?) and frequently exhibit our neurosis of becoming, or being prey to, otherness. Whether as a parody of consumerism – shuffling, insatiable, mindless beings driven solely to consume (even depicted tearing through a mall in Dawn of the Dead, 1978) – or as a manifestation of terrorism – they could be any of us, they could come from anywhere, they look like us but we can’t understand what they want (see: 28 Days Later, 2002) – zombie fiction often gives license to what it is that we fear our society at large might soon become as we fight to hold on to the individuality and selfhood that defines us.
In the more intimate, us-against-them, scramble-to-survive moments depicted in these post-apocalyptic scenarios, we see localised opportunities to test human frailties against an uncaring, merciless force of will. Indeed, we watch as our personality traits are put on trial, and frequently found wanting. From the cowardly guy who drives off in the rescue vehicle, only to himself be ironically devoured by the zombie he failed to notice in the backseat; to the parent, blinded by irreconcilable grief, who willingly lets her undead child back in through the door with tragic consequences; to the smug patriarch who will pretend that he wasn’t bitten back on that last run, and that even though he’s now coughing up blood, he isn’t being effected like all those other people were…
And here we see that elemental tie to The Smurfs…
The Smurfs, above all else, are a tight-knit community, whose greatest danger ultimately comes from within. Gargamel may plot and scheme and gnash his teeth, but we know instinctively that he will never succeed in tearing this little fungus-hut cooperative asunder; together they are more powerful than they are apart, and this unity will ultimately liberate them. This happy equilibrium is only ever truly thrown into turmoil when one of their own turns antisocial, non-communicative, and cannibalistic – literalising the fear of the other within the familiar, just as we see in all zombie fiction.
Similarly, despite being three apples tall, bright blue, and having an incredibly specific form of verbal aphasia that replaces every second word with ‘Smurf’******), they are utterly human. The Smurfs embody all of our human strengths and weaknesses: our industry (Handy Smurf; Baker Smurf), our skills (Painter Smurf; Hefty Smurf), our spectrum of emotional instability (Grumpy Smurf; Weepy Smurf), our hubris and narcissism (Brainy Smurf; Vanity Smurf), our ability to …to be female? (Yeah, having Smurfette’s lack of a Y-chromosome be her primary defining feature indicates that the Smurfs weren’t the most gender progressive species ever…)
Nonetheless, the Smurfs are a community of human quirks and traits refracted into the multiplicity of a shirtless pixie enclave. In many ways, they are an expansive metaphor for the ideal, harmonious human psyche, able to play out internal psychological struggles in order to resolve the whole:
‘Jokey Smurf, you’re driving everyone crazy with that one stupid joke…’
So Jokey feels excluded, and eventually decides that he needs his communal bonds more than he longs for his self-indulgence (and really, how many times can you trick people into opening an exploding gift box before they start curb-stomping you?), so he agrees to moderate his impulses and return back to the fold, the community at large sighing in relief at this resolution.
The metaphor is repeated and reiterated endlessly: in order to remain a happy, healthy Smurf village (human society; human mind, body, and soul), each attribute has to be regulated with an eye to the greater good. Sure, you can get grumpy sometimes – but you better cool that nonsense down every so often, or you’ll throw the whole social/psychological ecosystem out of whack, and Smurf yourself up irreparably.
It’s this same elaborate symbolic struggle that plays out in all zombie fiction, again and again – although the punishment for failing to live up to the challenge of self-restraint, ingenuity and cohesion is to be devoured by the omnipresent other that presses in; to be stripped of all those human attributes that you should have better harmonised before your impending undeath.
If you’re greedily sitting on a stockpile of food and weapons that you are unwilling to share with the ragtag team of survivors knocking on your gates: ‘Gnap!’ You’ll get zombied. If you’re boasting yourself up to everyone as a stone cold hero, despite internally being an incurable coward: ‘Gnap!’ If you’re an irrational sexist: ‘Gnap!’ A hatemongering racist: ‘Gnap!’ A sleazebag: ‘Gnap!’ Responsible for cancelling Firefly: ‘Gnap! Gnap! Gnap! Gnap! Gnap!’
…And then driven over by a makeshift armoured RV.
Ultimately, despite their divergence in tone, it’s from this same well of self-assessment and a terror of otherness that both Smurf village and all zombie fiction spring, each, in their own curious ways, playing out the most fundamental anxieties that surface in our therapeutic drive to better comprehend our own nature.
That’s not a realisation that we came to, all those years ago, sitting around a table sniggering at Handy Smurf’s proficiency with a hammer and sickle, but perhaps that was because there was no ghoulish mass of animate corpses pounding on the windows, reminding us all of what it is in our personalities that we should cherish, or that (as is more likely the case) would inevitably condemn us to death.
* How else do you propose to explain Orko?
** The Snorks (1984), try as we might, could not be fashioned into anything other than a cynical rip off of The Smurfs.
***** An unfortunate choice that one sincerely hopes had only accidental racial implications.
****** I am being flippant – in reality I was surprised to learn that there are elaborate rules for the application of the word ‘Smurf’, with one such disagreement shown to balloon out into a linguistic civil war between ‘Northern Smurfs’ and ‘Southern Smurfs’ that is believed to be an analogy for similar disputes between Dutch and French speaking peoples in Belgium (http://smurfs.wikia.com/wiki/Smurf_Versus_Smurf). …In any case, someone needs to show me in a Dictionary what ‘Smurftastic’ means.