The French do love their semiotics. But right now, there are whole French discussion boards dedicated to determining whether a brigade of blue cartoon characters from the fifties favored a command economy. Have things gone too far?
This très Barthesian moment was precicipated by the publication of Antoine Buéno's "The Little Blue Book: A critical and political analysis of the Smurf society," in which the Sciences Po lecturer alleged that the figures of Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford's (pen name "Peyo") Smurf comic strips had some super mid-twentieth century neuroses and ideologies at work beneath all that blue ink. Let's let the French paper L'Express take it away, describing "smurfologue" Buéno's theory:
Smurfs, charming blue imps or horrible Stalinists, racists, and antisemites? ... In complete autocracy, the smurf society is collectivist and directed by a single and omnipotent leader, the great Smurf. They are ridiculous puritans. ... Racism is obvious in the black Smurf album where purity of blood becomes vital ... Or in that of The Smurfette, where the blond Aryan is idealized. Their sworn enemy, Gargamel, has a profile reminiscent of an antisemitic caricature and his cat is named Azraël.
'Don't Touch My Smurf!'
And then came the backlash, critics apparently calling Bueno everything from an "imbecile" to an "opportunist," "crook," and "shatterer of dreams." (French idealism depends on Smurfs? Really?) The cartoonist's son, Thierry Culliford, has weighed in, not having read the book, apparently telling L'Express when contacted: "Let me guess, I know the story! Smurfs are communists, homosexuals, racists, etc. ... I have not read nor met Antoine Bueno. He can pore over the albums as he likes--even if I don't support his interpretation, which is positioned between the grotesque and the not very serious--as long as he doesn't attack my father." He continued: "My father absolutely wasn't interested in politics. When there were elections, he asked my mother: 'What should I vote?'"
Gandhi, Cheese Graters, and Cartoon Currency: A Closer Look at Smurfdom
The bigger backlash has been from the fans. L'Express has dedicated a separate article to summarizing the Internet debate from Smurf-lovers. An excerpt:
For [commenter] Smurfs, "the book is right," "the great Smurf with his beard and his red clothes: Stalin [...] All the Smurfs are clothed in the same manner, the one thing that differentiates them being their attribution. [That] comes close to the communist ideal." He notably underlines "the absence of a monetary system."...But [commenter] Anastasio questions the limits of semiotic and textual analyses of the works: "It's not hard to find antisemitism in Shakespeare or Balzac." ... "the sorcerer's hooked nose isn't Jewish or Goy, it's traditional for sorcerers."
But what do Internet debaters know? L'Express also ran an interview with a specialist:
Lexpress.fr asked Patrick Gaumer, comic book historian and author of the 'Global dictionary of comic books,' his opinion on 'The Little Blue Book': "It's an accumulation of sophisims, of reasonings which seem rigorous and which are misleading and lies." For example, he gives the connection which is made between the Smurf with glasses and Trostsky: "I could just as easily say that it was Gandhi, who also wore glasses."The hammer and sickle for example, which are often evoked in the albums, recall Soviet symbols. "They could also be about grating cheese," objects Patrick Gaumer.