In 2005, cartoonist Matt Furie published a comic on his Myspace that involved an anthropomorphic frog taking a pee with his pants around his ankles. When his friend asks why he urinates with his pants pulled all the way down, the frog answers: “Feels good man.” In 2017, the same frog lays dead in a casket, surrounded by his friends. Pepe the Frog is dead. Vale Pepe the Frog.
The decade between Pepe’s birth and death is complicated, to say the least. The panel of Pepe saying “Feels good man” became a reaction image on Gaia Online forums before being picked up by 4chan. From there, it evolved into various remixes of the original joke: Sad Frog, Smug Frog, Angry Pepe. It started as an in-joke, before bleeding into the mainstream, with pop-stars Nicky Minaj and Katy Perry posting Pepe memes on Instagram and Twitter.
At some point during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, something went very wrong. In a surreal turn of events that no one could have seen coming, Pepe was co-opted by members of the alt-right movement and white supremacists after Trump retweeted a smug Trump-Pepe. The frog that likes to pee with his pants at his ankles became a hate symbol.
So what do you do when something you made has become something that the Anti-Defamation League defines as a hate symbol? In an op-ed piece published in “Time,” Furie attempted to reclaim the character. “I understand that it’s out of my control,” he acknowledged, “but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.”
Fantagraphics, the publisher that released Furie’s collected “Boy’s Club” comics, issued a statement regarding Pepe’s hate symbol status that sums it up pretty well.
Having your creation appropriated without consent is never something an artist wants to suffer, but having it done in the service of such repellent hatred — and thereby dragging your name into the conversation, as well — makes it considerably more troubling.
It’s Furie’s legacy now, whether he wants it or not. Even the product page for “Boy’s Club” (the collected volume of Furie’s comic strips) on Fantagraphics’ web-store refers to the Pepe phenomenon as a selling point for the book.
By killing Pepe, Furie has essentially washed his hands of his creation. Pepe is dead and buried, and that’s that. But what could he do otherwise? It’s not like Furie can sue the Internet for appropriating his character. Does he continue making comics that included Pepe, intentionally or unintentionally riding the frog’s infamy? Does he craft a comic with Pepe punching neo-nazis in the face? Or does he do nothing, quietly watching as his creation continues to mutate further and further from its origin? Is killing Pepe even the right move to make? By killing the frog, is Furie admitting defeat and surrendering his creation to the alt-right hordes? What do you do when something you poured your heart into creating is hijacked to stand for something that’s objectively terrible and reprehensible?
The problem with Furie’s gesture is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because it won’t change anything. Pepe the Frog is dead, but Pepe the Meme is not. The latter cannot be killed, because that’s not how memes work. Pepe has transcended Furie’s authorship and belongs to the Internet, now. It’s been chopped and changed and remixed to the point that it barely resembles the original. It’s become a meme, and like any meme, it has been transformed through replication into something else. It’s a frog named Pepe, sure — but it isn’t Pepe the Frog.
“Before this election, Pepe the Frog spent years mutating online into the many-faced Mickey Mouse God of the Internet,” Furie wrote for “Time.” “The frog face has gone through thousands of user-made Internet incarnations, expressing rage, smugness, violence, happiness, coolness and, most notably, sadness. To zillions of people, mostly kids, teens and college-dwellers, it meant many things, but mostly it was a big joke.”
Furie isn’t the first artist to see their creation ripped from their hands and transformed into something out of their control (albeit in much less extreme circumstances). You’ve no doubt encountered the ubiquitous Calvin of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” fame urinating on a logo of some sort, or cartoonist KC Green’s Dickbutt and Question Hound (the dog that says “This is fine!” while everything burns around him) in some form, but you’d be lucky to find a creator credit attached to any memes. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just how Internet memes work. Perhaps the worst part is that you don’t know what will be the next thing people will latch onto and endlessly remix. Green didn’t know a man with a dick growing out of his butt would be the thing people would take and run with, and no one could’ve known this is where Pepe would end up.
I feel bad for Matt Furie. It sucks that a goofy joke he made in 2005 has be co-opted and transformed into a hate symbol over a decade later. It sucks that every interview ha conducts now revolves around the question, “How do you feel about your cartoon being co-opted and transformed into a hate symbol?” as his actual artistic output is regulated to an afterthought. It sucks that he will forever be known as The Guy Who Created Pepe, no matter how far he distances himself from the ill-fated frog.
In October 2016, Furie published a new comic strip featuring Pepe at The Nib. In it, the once happy frog is now morose, transforming into the face of Donald Trump before becoming an eldritch horror that triggers the apocalypse. Pepe awakes from this nightmare scenario in a cold sweat… just before he’s enveloped by his bed. It’s hard not to assume this is how Furie feels about Pepe, a grotesque nightmare he just can’t wake from, no matter how he tries.
Ending Pepe on his own terms is a powerful move on Furie’s behalf; he’s finally purifying himself of the cartoon frog. He’s realized that he can’t reclaim him anymore, and the best move is to move past it. At the very least, I hope he can sleep better at night knowing that his creation and his connection to it are dead and buried. But in the long run, it doesn’t change anything. Pepe is synonymous with hate speech, and that’s a stain that you can’t easily wash out. Furie can kill Pepe the Frog a million times, but Pepe the Meme will never die.
Feels bad man.