Wednesday 11 July 2012

A Smurf of a mystery

So, last summer someone made a 3D movie about the Smurfs, those little blue guys (and girl) -- and it made a lot of green. Like more than $560 million worth. That’s more than double Green Lantern and about $200 million more than Captain America. Not too shabby for a moribund Belgian comic. I spotted the DVD in a store the other day and it got me thinking about the surprising similarities between the enduring (and annoying) blue imps and the Brownies, a popular turn-of-the-century pop culture phenomenon by writer/cartoonist Palmer Cox.

The Canadian-born Cox created the characters after hearing stories of Scottish/Irish "brownies", mischievous little elvin creatures who would help humans at night. They first appeared in book form in 1883. A secretive society of all-male sprite-like creatures who pulled pranks and occasionally helped out humans, they were easily identifiable thanks to their one-note personalities. Some favourites: Chauncey Quoter (a poet), Major Telloff (an army commander) and Cholly Boutonnière (a top-hatted dandy). Heck, they even sported little peaked caps.

I know, right? I can’t be the only one to connect the dots on this can I? The fact that Cox died in 1924 and Pierre Culliford, the creator of the Smurfs, was born four years later lends at least some credence to the possible connection. Cox's books enjoyed multiple reprints for decades after his death, and were translated into many langugaes, so it's possible that a young Culliford would have been exposed to them. 

Keep in mind, though largely forgotten today the Brownies were wildly popular, with their adventures being translated in multiple languages and many products being sold with their image attached. Ever hear of Kodak’s Brownie camera? Yep -- an early example of sponsorship. I can’t find any info online that suggests Culliford (aka Peyo) used The Brownies as inspiration for his little men (and one woman), but it sure is fun to speculate.

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