After fighting an uphill battle to reclaim the feel-good image of his popular character after it was perverted by a culture of hate, cartoonist Matt Furie laid to rest Pepe the Frog in Fantagraphics' Free Comic Book Day offering, "World's Greatest Cartoonists." In a one-page strip, Pepe lies in an open casket while "Boy's Club" friends Landwolf, Brett and Andy mourn him in their irreverent fashion.
Furie debuted Pepe and the "Boy's Club" characters on his MySpace blog in 2005 and published four issues of the crew's adventures through Buenaventura Press, stories that were collected into a single volume by Fantagraphics in 2016. Pepe, as seen in "Boy's Club," is a mellow dude getting stoned with his friends, regularly engaging in gross-out humor. But more recently, Pepe has been adopted as an icon and mascot by the extreme conservative "alt-right" movement, and as memes showing the chill frog promoting white nationalist and anti-semitic messages graduated from 4chan and Reddit into the mainstream, the Anti-Defamation League last year designated Pepe a hate symbol.
Pepe had starred in more innocent memes for years, his "Feels good, man" mantra applicable to all manner of situations. But as detailed by the Daily Beast, this began to change in 2015 thanks to a coordinated campaign on a subversive corner of 4chan. A self-identified white nationalist told the Daily Beast that, "We basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc. We built that association." When, later, Pepe was used in images promoting Donald Trump's bid for the presidency, the memes served both as a coded message to the "alt-right" subculture and, through exposure of their version of Pepe to mainstream audiences, an amplification of the group's more extreme content.
Furie and Fantagraphics denounced the "alt-right's" use of Pepe. “It’s completely insane that Pepe has been labeled a symbol of hate,” he wrote in an essay for Time magazine. “It’s a nightmare, and the only thing I can do is see this as an opportunity to speak out against hate.”
"Before Pepe the Frog was a meme designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, he began his life as a blissfully stoned frog in my comic book 'Boy's Club,' where he enjoyed a simple life of snacks, soda and pulling his pants all the way down to go pee," Furie wrote in Time. As early Pepe memes elevated his popularity and Furie was entertaining multiple licensing deals, the cartoonist recalls thinking, "Memes rule!"
"But that was before 2016, a time when our culture evolved to include Internet culture in this election (mostly to seek out the Millennial vote). A smug Trump-Pepe was shared by Trump himself on Twitter in the beginning of the election race, a move I assumed was a nod to young voters. Or perhaps it was a more sinister nod to some fringe, racist groups that used Pepe as a mascot for their agenda. Or just another famous person sharing a Pepe meme because it's cool (like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj did in the past). I have no idea."
Furie ended his essay by stating that "Pepe is love," and soon responded with a new comic showing Pepe horrified at what he's become.
Earlier in 2016, around the time Fantagraphics' "Boy's Club" collection was released, Furie spoke with CBR about his creations. "[T]he characters in 'Boy’s Club' will always be a part of me. Andy the wise guy, Landwolf the party animal, Brett the fashionable dancer, and Pepe the chill frog — they are all tweaked reflections of my own values and sensibilities," Furie said at the time. "Their personalities unfolded and blossomed as time went on, but just like the person in your life that you love the most, one day they will die. And death can be as beautiful as life, because it’s what makes life important."
Now, it would seem, that day has come. The rehabilitation of Pepe was always going to be a struggle, and it's hard to imagine Furie taking much joy in creating new Pepe strips knowing that, whatever his own intentions, the character would read through tinted lenses.
While it's unlikely Pepe's official death will stop extremists from co-opting his image, this was, perhaps, the most effective way for Furie to reclaim his character; Pepe's soul has returned to his creator. Rest in Peace.