How Pepe the Frog’s Creator Rescued Him From the Alt-Right
The new documentary “Feels Good Man” follows Matt Furie, the good-natured creator of the Pepe the Frog character, who inadvertently became a symbol of hate among the Trump crowd.
Matt Furie, the cartoonist and creator of the Pepe the Frog character (though crucially, not the meme), reminds me of quite a few of my male friends growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, and even more of them now that I live in California. He’s carefree, weird in a fun way, queer-adjacent, creative, and a vessel of good vibes. It’s this personality type that draws people in: other cartoonists, his wife, his energetic toddler, his long-haired townie roommate in California. But contained in this positivity is also Furie’s general aversion to conflict, to bad vibes, which ultimately kept him from getting ahead of the meme-ification of Pepe.
Pepe is the main character of Boy’s Club, a good-natured, rowdy, stoner-culture comic strip starring four groovy animal friends that Furie created in 2005. But years on, the character would get far away from him, becoming a symbol of incel culture on 4chan, then directly “ironic” bigotry, then Trumpism, with the president posting an image of Pepe made to look like him on Twitter ahead of the 2016 election. Feels Good Man, a cultural and political documentary by Arthur Jones, closely traces the stories behind both Matt and Pepe, offering a rigorous meditation on how good-vibes-only passivity can unwittingly provide a platform for hatred and violence.
It would perhaps take something away from the wild ride of the film to trace the Pepe meme for you here, and journalists have already done that work. What’s vital to know is that Furie is probably about as removed from 4chan as you can get.
He originally began posting Boy’s Club comic strips online during the early days of Myspace, when the platform was not only still in existence, but also an energetically yet minimally designed vortex for curious sociality. This is the internet I know, though I’m quite a bit younger than Furie (I’m not technologically literate in practice, only in theory). I also knew the Boy’s Club comic strip, and recognized the Pepe the Frog meme when it would come up occasionally on Twitter (where I have to be because of work), though I never caught on, not even in the throes of the 2016 election, that Pepe had been appropriated as a symbol of bigotry. So I came into Feels Good Man about as clueless—or naive, as his friends put it—as Furie himself, at least on the internet-culture front.
At the same time, I’ve always been a bit paranoid, not so carefree, worried about freak accidents, shady acquaintances, political unrest, cellphone radiation. But I’m not just a bit anxious–I’m also Black and a woman. Most of my sense of concern was instilled by my parents to keep me alive. For guys—particularly white guys—like Furie, these thoughts and feelings are just stress, man. With his first feature, Jones is expert in drawing genuine reactions and reflections out of Furie, as well as in his move to consult people with some dark ideas about the culture that Furie’s innocent comic got sucked into. The film asks us to reflect on the world’s most troubling corners—corners that have fought their way to become the center, and a center that not only desires but laughs at the prospect of everyone else’s annihilation.
Furie calls the worst of what he has seen Pepe become unsurprising since “it’s a garbage world.” Americans produce trash, consume trash, die from the pollution of our own trash—a world full of kindness and delight would be more of a shock to him. In that way, Feels Good Man serves as a wake-up call to the many sweet slackers who have skirted danger for too long. Even if the abuse comes as no surprise, ignoring it won’t usher in the good times.