Smurfs have returned from the '80s to retail shelves near you
By Christine Rook, Lansing State Journal
Regardless of whether you collected Smurf figurines in the '80s or the sight of them made your teeth hurt, they are back with the same cloying grins and a new hipster appeal. For 2003, there's Techno Smurf, Hip Hop Smurf, video-game-playing Smurf and Smurf with a laptop. Oh, it's a Smurfy day in retail-land.
The reincarnation was inevitable. Marketers have burped up happy retreads of Strawberry Shortcake and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So it's not surprising that the Smurf play figures — credited with launching the '80s cartoon series — have awoke from hibernation to peer from their teensy mushroom houses and demand a market share.
"They're cute. They're Smurfs. What can I say?" says Stephen Jahner, manager of Capital City Comics & Books in Lansing, Mich.
The store started stocking the newest Smurf figurines about one month ago and has sold a couple of dozen. Price: $2.99 each. To be fair, though, the Smurfs officially never went away.
Smurf maker Schleich North America in Ontario, Canada, and its German counterpart, have been churning out eight new Smurfs every year.
It's only been since November, though, that companies such as Diamond Comic Distributors in Maryland began making Smurfs available to places such as Capital City Comics.
What is a Smurf?
For those who were preoccupied in the '80s trying to figure out that whole Devo new-wave music thing, the Smurfs were blue troll-like critters who supposedly stood three apples high.
At the peak of Smurf mania, American Gen Xers could watch the Smurf cartoon in their Smurf pajamas while hugging a Smurf plush toy.
Jennifer Joseph, now 31, was a Smurf fan and still is.
"It was like the most popular cartoon, and I really liked Smurfette," she says.
The Smurfs had their own village with little mushroom houses, and from her perspective at age 9, Smurf life rocked.
"It was like a fairy tale," she says.
By adulthood, Joseph had amassed 100 figurines, which she sold a year or two ago for $300.
Smurfs, however, were not universally loved in the United States. Like Barney, John Denver and Jerry Lewis, the Smurfs had their detractors.
"Whenever something is too sweet, it's almost too much to handle," says Gary Hoppenstand, a professor of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University.
In American pop culture, what is too puerile, too saccharine, is always despised by some.
"It must be human nature," Hoppenstand says, because there's Smurf loathing in the United Kingdom, as well.
The Web is loaded with Smurf-hater lyrics and the writings and artwork of people with Smurficidal tendencies. One Smurf Web surfer fantasizes about the creation of a Hillside Strangler Smurf and — well, you can guess the rest.
Yeeesh. Kermit the frog claimed it wasn't easy being green. Apparently, it's no picnic to be blue.
"Smurfs in general seem to be — I don't know what the word would be," says Dean Hanton, now 37. "They're nice to each other. They're pleasant. They're kind. They're just a little too shallow for me."
Hanton once owned a Smurf, but he swears it wasn't his fault.
"I know I didn't buy it," he says. "I can guarantee that."
His Smurf was the beer-drinker — one of the few doe-eyed critters with a vice.
There aren't any alcohol-toting Smurfs in the 2003 collection, although Workaholic Smurf is sipping something...
The new collection, in fact has been funkified.
Smurfette, for example, shows Smurf skin with a midriff-bearing shirt that would get any high schooler sent home. And what's that gold dot on her belly button? Hey! Smurfette has a body piercing.
That's nothing, though. Another Smurf has a spiked bracelet and a hoop earring, and another has a tattoo. A third has "Hip Hop" stamped on his shirt.
These are Smurfs that Gen Y just might be able to identify with.
"Everybody wants to own a Smurf," says Richie Kelley, a Michigan dealer in kiddie curios. "We sell Smurf stuff all of the time. Smurf stuff is just cool."
Kelley's stores deal solely in old-school Smurf — vintage items. In fact, he doesn't think the new Smurfs will have that much appeal to kids, even though they have more detail and color.
"The simplicity is what made Smurfs (popular)," he says.
That might not matter to marketers. The new Smurfs were created mainly for collectors, according to Schleich, and they're apparently selling well enough.
The Diamond distributing company decided to carry Smurf items again this year, says marketing spokesman Barry Lyga. Along with the eight figurines, Diamond sells a Smurf farmhouse and a Smurfette bedroom set with a nightstand and mirror.
You can thank or curse Europe for the Smurfs. That's where they debuted in 1958 and where you can find Smurf-based theater, according to the official Smurf Web site www.schlumpf.com.
"I guess Smurfs are yesterday's Pokemon," Kelley says.
That means just when you've lived through the second coming of the Smurfs, the Pokemon will be back.