By Christian Bernard-Cedervall
Translated by Antonin Pruvot
Before turning into the hedonistic symbol of a rebelled youth, the smiley face appears in its current form at the end of the 60s, in commercial or children TV programs. Originally the American graphic designer Harvey Ball drew it for an insurance company but failed to copyright it. The image was then free to use in the US, and slowly became the candid expression of the will for redemption in the post-Vietnam and Watergate America.
In the early 70s, markets are flooded with derived products: cups, t-shirts, stickers, jewellery… The small guy’s face is sold by the millions, so much that it alienates itself from the hippy counter-culture to which it seemed meant for.
At the same time, in France, Franklin Loufrani registers the smiley in the French intellectual property institution and to this day he still makes money on it through his company Smiley World Ltd. In the US a few negative incarnations start to appear.
The drawing turns into the symbol of a part of America which closes is eyes to the horrors of the war while engaging society ever further in exacerbated individualism. The Talking Heads and the Dead Kennedys put a smiley face on the cover of their respective successes “Psycho Killer” (1977) and “California Über Alles” (1980). In 1973 DC Comics (Batman’s publisher amongst others), launched Prez in which a hippy teenager who became president had to deal with the leader of a fascist militia, a character with the infamous smiley face! But that overused and ambivalent pop-culture symbol slowly went back to the shadows..
Resurrected by acid house
Without a warning shot, it comes back in 1986, under the pencils of the English Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons) in the comic Watchmen: heroes of a universe parallel to the American 70s, the Watchmen only found their salvation in retirement, capitalism under the CIA’s rule. In a last conscious convulsion, in the wake of the imminent and disastrous outcome of the Cold War, lines are moving. As the paranoid and depressed society that it is, America finds comfort in in a smiley worn on a badge by the Comedian, a former hero converted in a hit-man, as cynical as embarrassing. Huge success both commercially and for critics for the last forty years, the series starts a revolution in the publishers’ world, it marks the early times of a new counter pop-culture, later completed but Frank Miller’s fascinating Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.
In England, everybody wants to feel something like the Watchmen and it is Bomb The Bass who makes it official by putting a bloody smiley face on the cover of the head banging “Beat Dis” in 1988, they also add it in many of their videoclips at the time.
DJ Danny Rampling then uses for the flyers of the unforgettable Shoom club and a few weeks later acid house will become nation whose flag will be a yellow smiling ecstasy pill, much more politicised than one could think.