A little blue army of fans has mobilised to defend the Smurfs against accusations of antisemitism, racism and communism.
Antoine Buéno, a lecturer at Sciences Po university in Paris, makes the claims in his new book Le Petit Livre Bleu: Analyse critique et politique de la société des Schtroumpfs, in which he points out that the Smurfs live in a world where private initiative is rarely rewarded, where meals are all taken together in a communal room, where there is one leader and where the Smurfs rarely leave their small country.
"Does that not remind you of anything? A political dictatorship, for example?" asks Buéno, going on to compare the Smurfs' world to a totalitarian utopia reminiscent of Stalinist communism (Papa wears a red outfit and resembles Stalin, while Brainy is similar to Trotsky) and nazism (the character of the Smurfs' enemy Gargamel is an antisemitic caricature of a Jew, he proposes). A story about the Black Smurfs, meanwhile, in which the Smurfs are bitten by a fly which turns their skin black and renders them unable to speak, has colonial overtones.
Reactions to the book were immediate and hostile, with commenters on Smurf fansites calling Buéno a "dream breaker", an imbecile and a crook with "paranoid delusions", who is ruining childhood memories.
Buéno said the "hyper violent" reaction had been "very surprising".
"Frankly, I never expected it," he told the Guardian. "People think I'm moralising, which isn't my approach at all. I analyse fairly, I have fun ... I do not want to disenchant. One can keep one's childhood approach and impose on top an analytical approach which smiles to itself."
He believes the emotional nature of the responses stems from the Smurfs' place in fans' childhoods. "It's linked to childhood – it's 'don't touch my Smurfs! Don't touch my Proust's madeleine!'," he said. Le Petit Livre Bleu is a "true monograph, the first ever done on the Smurfs", says Buéno, and is "rigorous and thorough and documented", based on intuitions expressed long before his book, including the "Cold War paranoia" that Smurf stood for "Small Men Under Red Force", and exploring his belief that "popular works, however innocent they seem, have much to say about our society".
But despite its serious purpose, the book "does not take itself seriously", he said. "My approach is schoolboy, somewhat in the spirit of Monty Python (my heroes) ... Of course it's funny to talk about totalitarianism, Stalinism and nazism for small animals as friendly, innocent and popular as the Smurfs," he said. "It's so obvious that I didn't think I would have to spell it out."
Buéno added that he does not believe the Smurfs' creator Peyo, a pen name for the late Belgian artist Pierre Culliford, added the racist overtones to the Smurfs deliberately. "Peyo was not at all politicised; all this was unconscious," he said.
Culliford's son Thierry Culliford told French paper L'Express that his father "absolutely was not interested in politics". "When there were elections, he would ask my mother, 'what should I vote?'" said Culliford, adding that he has not read Buéno's book. "He can interpret the stories how he likes – even if I do not endorse his interpretation, which is situated between the grotesque and the not very serious – as long as he does not attack my father."