Peyo: the man behind the little blue gnomes
Peyo was a great master of the so-called "ninth art" – comics – as the creator of characters such as Steven Strong, Jacky and Célestin, Johan and Peewit, Poussy and especially the Smurfs. His real name is Pierre Culliford, and he was born on 25 June 1928 in Schaerbeek, part of the Brussels metropolitan area.
He went through rather turbulent primary and secondary education at the Saint-Louis school in Brussels, and he dropped out of school at 16 as a result of World War II. Until the allied liberation, he was an projectionist’s assistant in a cinema, going on to spend several months studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. But the curriculum at the Academy did not appeal to him, as he preferred humorous drawing and caricatures. Incidentally, he once said that he learned his craft "in Hergé's comic albums and in American comics". After a year of drawing for the advertising industry, Peyo made a timid entry into the world of comics with a trial run in the newspapers "La Dernière Heure" and "Le Soir".
In 1947, the combination of an exalted childhood passion for the myths about the Middle Ages and a poetic sense of humour tinged with elements of fantasy led him to create Johan, a young squire who, a few comic albums later, would go on to meet his sidekick, Peewit, a mischievous, complaining, lazy, and gluttonous little rascal who would become Johan’s straight man. The two characters became inseparable, and went through a host of adventures in Spirou Magazine, where Peyo’s long-time friend Franquin also worked. In May 1958, Peyo imagined a new adventure for the two companions, La Flûte à six trous ("The Flute with Six Holes"), in which the Smurfs appeared for the first time as secondary characters. These little blue men living in mushroom houses, speaking their own language, and eating sarsaparilla might only have been a passing creation. In this first appearance, they were indistinguishable, except for their leader Papa Smurf – both wise and erudite, sporting red clothes and a beard – while the other Smurfs were simply depicted as hairless, wearing white hats and trousers. It is only afterward that they were given individual personalities, with Hefty Smurf, Brainy Smurf, Jokey Smurf, Greedy Smurf, etc. – and, lest we forget, Smurfette.
In August 1960, "The Castellac Ring", the new Johan and Peewit story, began to be published in Spirou. The Smurfs did not make an appearance in this story, even though the public was clamouring for them, and, in spite of an excellent storyline, Peyo had to face facts: he could no longer do without the blue creatures he had created three years before.
In the 1960s, he decided to create his own studio to work with his assistants, creating the "Steven Strong" and "Jacky and Célestin" series. But in the 1970s, Peyo’s production pace slowed, with film and Hollywood requiring much of his time, particularly for the cartoon adaptation of the Smurfs. The growing success of the Smurfs forced Peyo to found his own studio and surround himself with a solid team. The years 1983 and 1984 saw the true internationalisation of the Smurfs (millions of merchandising products and multiple cartoons featuring the incredible Smurfs took the world by storm).
Peyo founded his own publishing house in 1989: Cartoon Création. In 1992, Cartoon Création sold the comic album versions of his series (including the Smurfs, but also Steven Strong and Johan and Peewit, etc.) to Lombard publishing. That same year, the creator passed away in Brussels from a heart attack, but his characters would continue to live on.