October 10, 2016
Make Pepe Great Again: Standing with Matt Furie
by Ian Dreiblatt
Oh man. This fucking election.
As unrepentantly nasty as Donald Trump and his shock troops have been to so many—people with ovaries, people with disabilities, people who worship the same God Trump claims allegiance to in a slightly different fashion, actual literal babies—there’s one victim here who honestly makes the least sense of all: Pepe the Frog.
Pepe is a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie in 2005. Pepe has, for most of his life, been completely innocent, blessed with the particular brand of dignity conferred by implacable chill. He had a catchphrase (“Feels good man”), a few signature activities (he liked smoking pot and peeing on things), and, in 2006, a starring role (alongside his roommates Andy, Brett, and Landwolf) in Furie’s book Boy’s Club. Gradually, he began to be appropriated by others on the internet, and it was sometimes a little weird, though generally harmless enough.
By the summer of 2015, Furie had some complaints about Pepe’s repurposing. That July, he told Vice’s Sean T. Collins that he liked some of what the internet had done with his creation, but didn’t understand why Pepe was so often drawn hugging the mysterious Feels Guy, and with brown lips and a blue shirt. Reasonable complaints. You should hear what my parents say about me.
But that was last year, before the dark times. More recently, for reasons that really aren’t exceptionally clear, Pepe has been adopted as a kind of mascot by the alt-right. White supremacists, anti-semites, and others have made truly hateful cartoons in which Pepe says horrendous things (google “Pepe + [name of minority]” at your own risk), and the heretofore innocuous frog emoji has started appearing in some people’s Twitter handles as an indication of their hate-fueled politics. When Roger Stone and Eric Trump shared their Expendables/Deplorables mash-up meme last month, Pepe got the coveted Schwarzenegger spot. Pepe has been declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, and the Hillary Clinton campaign has devoted an entire webpage to unpacking his significance.
Jesus. 2016, amirite?
Now, Furie’s publisher, Fantagraphics, has released a statement addressing the situation. They are appalled, citing the “significant emotional and financial harm” being done to Furie:
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.
Fantagraphics Books wants to state for the record that the one, true Pepe the frog, as created by the human being and artist Matt Furie, is a peaceful cartoon amphibian who represents love, acceptance, and fun. (And getting stoned.) Both creator and creation reject the nihilism fueling Pepe’s alt-right appropriators, and all of us at Fantagraphics encourage you to help us reclaim Pepe as a symbol of positivity and togetherness, and to stand by Matt Furie.
We encourage reporters and others citing Furie as the character’s creator to also note that he condemns these illegal representations of his character. Matt is available for interviews through Fantagraphics. We encourage fans and others who support Furie to block, report, and denounce the illegal uses of the character by individuals and groups pirating him to foment hatred.
We reached out to Andrew Leland, longtime managing editor of the Believer (in which Pepe made many of his early appearances) and now host of the magazine’s podcast, The Organist (which, if you’re not listening to it, you’re definitely not living your best life), and he had this to say:
My first encounter with Pepe was in the Believer. It may have even been before Alvin Buenaventura (RIP) started editing the Comics page for us — we used to run paintings on the inside front cover. An early such cover was Furie’s “Flight of the Peace Frog,” which featured a Pepe-like frog flying on the back of a songbird. I wonder (I don’t have the issue in front of me) if said peace frog was an early incarnation of Pepe. I (and Believer readers) met Pepe in earnest when Furie’s Boy’s Club started running in Alvin’s “Comics” spread every month.
You asked how I feel about Pepe? I loved Pepe. In my privileged existence in San Francisco, encounters with the “alt-right” were nil. I felt more fear and loathing toward sexually potent hipster dudes who at the time I feared would steal my girlfriend — guys who seemed effortlessly fit, charming, alive, vibrant. Pepe and his friends in Boy’s Club maybe disarmed that myth of the bay area hipster bro — his chillness went deep; he was generous. I think Mac Demarco might be the old Pepe IRL right now, in terms of cultural figures who aren’t frogs. Was it almost a spiritual chillness? I don’t know what I’m talking about. But obviously there couldn’t be a character further from hate speech.
I don’t know what to say — it’s deeply depressing that his image has been coopted by the alt-right and that Matt’s name now comes up when you search the Southern Poverty Law Center database. In the magazine, Matt’s comics would often run adjacent to Johnny Ryan’s, whose work engages hate speech head-on: Ryan draws things like Nazi helicopters getting blowjobs from bald eagles. His approach seems to be to be as offensive as possible, to everyone, while still making the jokes and visual puns surprising — a puerile but effective way to make his art genuinely shocking. Furie’s approach was far more expressionistic: Boy’s Club felt like stoned doodling but elevated to the highest (ha) possible level, as if meandering stoner cartoon narratives had been imbued with lysergic clarity — poop and weed jokes at 12 billion dots per inch.
The Pepe knockoffs online are pixellated and shitty and have none of the charm of Furie’s achievement. They’re like the disenfranchised Bart Simpsons of the 90s, playing in the NBA or brandishing bongs and wearing dreads. But in reverse: Bart was born to be a schoolkid, but then got coopted into underground drug culture. Pepe, conversely, was born to get high, but now he’s been conscripted into a hateful subculture that has nothing to do with his true spirit. Maybe there’s something to be said about Pepe as id, as the hedonistic stoner within that has been mutated into hate-speech id. We all have an uncanny cartoon frog within us — sometimes it’s just a party animal, sometimes it’s a racist caricature.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.