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How Pepe the Frog Jumped from Haight Street to Hate Street

The cartoon character Pepe the Frog is the subject of the new documentary Feels Good Man.
KURT KEPPELER
The cartoon character Pepe the Frog is the subject of the new documentary Feels Good Man.
A documentary on the alt-right’s appropriation of a cute meme arrives just in time for the U.S. presidential election.

The Bay Area played host to underground comics’ first wave in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with most of the scene’s major artists and leading publishers located there. Much has changed in the half century since the Haight-Ashbury was the counterculture’s epicenter. Still, San Francisco retains a liberal vibe, and the town that once gave us Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead and the cannabis-saturated likes of R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural seemed unlikely to provide the modern alt-right with a meme-driven cartoon mascot. Yet that’s just what happened—taking us from Haight Street to hate speech, as it were.

This was not what formerly San Francisco–based artist Matt Furie (who now lives in Los Angeles) had in mind when he created Pepe the Frog about 15 years ago. Of course, it’s always painful to see an offspring go astray. But imagine your creative baby growing up to be embraced and manipulated by neo-Nazis, Infowars’ Alex Jones, and other reactionary extremists—and getting added to the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbols Database as a result. 

Giorgio Angelini and Arthur Jones’s documentary Feels Good Man, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, charts the bizarre events and circumstances that led to Pepe the Frog getting pulled to the “dark side”—much to the horror of his originator. Scheduled to begin streaming September 4, the film shows the ways in which public political discourse has steadily been warped, just in time for what might be the most venomously contested presidential election in American history.

Pepe the Frog creator and artist Matt Furie in his studio.KURT KEPPELER
Pepe the Frog creator Matt Furie in his studio.
“HAPPY LITTLE FROG” 

A guileless goofball not unlike his most famous drawn character, Furie introduced humanoid amphibian Pepe in 2005 as part of his Boy’s Club comic. Its four anthropomorphic roomies parodied his own “post-college zone” of playing video games, drinking, and hanging out. He conceived the comic strip while working at a store in San Francisco’s Mission district called Community Thrift, initially posting installments on Myspace. The slacker humor was at once rude and harmless, never more so than in a panel where Pepe shrugs and says “Feels good man” to explain his habit of urinating with pants down at ankle level.

That this should somehow have bred the memes that would be embraced and utilized by everyone from anonymous incel types (involuntarily celibate young men who congregate online) to Donald Trump himself still strikes Furie—now a father and an acclaimed children’s book author—and his colleagues as “incredibly random.” But that, alas, is how the internet so often works, turning something trivial into hypercombustible fuel for compulsive trolls. Deftly juggling whimsical absurdism and a sense of real-world nightmare, Feels Good Man sees this “happy little frog” turned into an alter ego—sometimes sad, sometimes raging—for “owning your loserdom” among the kinds of self-appointed “social rejects” who stereotypically live in Mom’s basement, airing resentment toward “normies” (who have actual jobs and girlfriends) on toxic web forums like 4chan. 

These “disempowered men who have retreated into fantasy worlds,” as one interviewee in the documentary puts it, proved the perfect patsies, easily manipulated into joining alt-right causes with Pepe as their “entry point of radicalization.” White nationalists and others saw presidential candidate Trump as the living embodiment of the Smug Pepe meme they’d created and popularized themselves, an anti-PC wrecking ball who was attractive not so much for any actual policies or beliefs as for how deeply he pissed those normies off. 

THE TRUMP BUMP

By the time Trump retweeted an image of himself as guess-who and a Hillary Clinton speech was interrupted by someone yelling “Pepe!,” Furie’s cute critter had become nihilist trolls’ loudest dog whistle. He was the perfect mascot for gleeful haters: an in-joke they knew to take seriously but one that also invited ridicule of any outsider (like Clinton) caught criticizing a mere “stupid cartoon.”

Initially slow to contest such appropriations (“I didn’t even know what a meme was,” he says), Furie grew more alarmed, not to mention anxious, as millions of Pepe images promoted racism, xenophobia, violence, and so forth. He tried rebranding (Peace Pepe), officially killing off his creation, and joining forces with the Anti-Defamation League. Finally, he hired lawyers—successfully shutting down such unwanted, unauthorized Pepe profiteers as the author of an Islamophobic kiddie picture book, professional conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and white supremacist Richard B. Spencer.

Feels Good Man illustrates the dizzying breadth and speed with which one person’s innocent invention can be turned into a bludgeon that gets used on people just like the creator. But it’s also a testament to hope, and fun, and silliness. Four animators (including director Arthur Jones) make Pepe come alive in toon sequences that have a Simpsons-like satirical glee. It is oddly reassuring that several of the less sympathetic figures glimpsed here—the ever-apoplectic Alex Jones; a Lamborghini-driving cryptocurrency trader dealing in dubious “PepeCash”—are also rather laughable as menaces to society. Common sense, one hopes, will prevail over the likes of them in the long run. 

And the winds of fate that made Pepe the Frog a leading logo for louts over the past decade have proved unpredictable: just as inexplicably, the little green guy has recently been adopted as a symbol of pro-democracy, anti-authoritarian resistance by Hong Kong youth activists. That development provides a welcome happy ending to this entertaining yet simultaneously disturbing documentary about a meme and American politics. 

Dennis Harvey wrote about Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives for Alta, Spring 2020.

FEELS GOOD MAN
RECOMMENDATIONS

Three films that paved the way for Feels Good Man

Fritz the Cat, directed by Ralph Bakshi (1972): Though R. Crumb himself disliked it, this hit cartoon version of his raunchy print creation channels the envelope-pushing spirit of San Francisco’s original underground comics wave. 

GTFO: Get the F&#% Out, directed by Shannon Sun-Higginson (2015): A portrait of a toxic online “boys’ club” whose membership often overlaps with that of the Pepe meme-makers, this absorbing documentary examines the hostility and frequent sexist abuse experienced by women in the video-gaming world. 

Alt-Right: Age of Rage, directed by Adam Bhala Lough (2018): Remember when American neo-Nazis seemed an outlandish concept? This nonfiction feature surveys the rapid expansion of white nationalist groups in the Trump era as well as their equally committed activist opponents.

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