It's Not Easy Being Meme

How artist Matt Furie feels about his creation, Pepe the Frog, becoming a favored symbol of white nationalists and Trump supporters

Matt Furie

Tuesday morning Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign denounced a cartoon frog named Pepe.

For most of his lifespan as a meme on the internet, Pepe the Frog was a benign, if sometimes bawdy figure beloved by pop stars and teenagers alike. He was created by artist Matt Furie for a strip he started in 2005 called Boy’s Club, which Furie describes as a comic about life in your early 20s.

But reporters today are more likely to encounter Pepe’s smug visage in his latest incarnation, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put it, people with “Nazi frog avatars” who are “tweeting about the Jews.”

After Hillary Clinton placed half of her rival Donald Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out a modified image of the poster for the action movie The Expendables with prominent Trump supporters’ faces photoshopped onto those of the action stars. The image, which introduces the group as The Deplorables, includes Pepe in a Donald Trump wig. Reporters now often describe Pepe as a “white-nationalist symbol” rather than the “chill” and “good natured” frog he was intended to be.

Furie lives in Los Angeles, where he works as an artist and illustrator, working on everything from magazines and record covers to clothing. I spoke to him Tuesday afternoon about the origins of Pepe, and how he feels about his mellow cartoon frog becoming a favored image of Nazis and white supremacists. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Adam Serwer: Who is Pepe the Frog and how did you come up with him?

Matt Furie: Pepe started in the early 2000s, I had just been drawing a lot of frog faces, and I came up with a frog character to be one of four characters in a comic book that I did called Boy’s Club, and it started off as a zine, I would just publish it just for my friends and associates and stuff. You know just at Kinkos, make copies of it.

Eventually I did some independent publishing with it, and I did about four comics called Boy’s Club, and Pepe is kind of like, in the comic version of him, in my version of him, he’s just kind of an everyman frog, he lives with his three roommates, a dog, a bear and a wolf. It just kind of expresses early 20-something hedonistic lifestyle, of just hanging out, playing pranks on each other, eating pizza, partying, that kind of thing. A lot of bodily humor.

For whatever reason, the Pepe the Frog guy was singled out and started to evolve into this whole internet thing.

Serwer: How did it feel when Pepe turned into an internet meme?

Furie: When it started out, it was just a thing that people would use on message boards. There was a six-panel comic page of Pepe taking a leak with his pants all the way down, and one of his roommates walks in on him. Later on they’re playing video games, and his buddy Landwolf says “I heard you pull your pants all the way down to go pee,” and Pepe responds by saying “feels good man,” he looks happy. So that was kind of cut out from there, and used in a viral way, people would say things like “I just finished my final exam” and they’d post the happy frog saying “feels good man.” So it was like kind of a positive reinforcement thing.

And then different bits and pieces were lifted from the comic until finally the sad frog one, which is the one he’s most known for, was in a panel where he didn’t really describe why he was sad, but he says, “I always have time for eating pizza on a bagel,” and then he sadly lifts up a pizza bagel into his mouth and takes a bite of it. So the comic itself is just mellow, he’s just a chill frog and is pretty good natured.

It has a lot of pop culture references in it, they say “got milk” and “that would be a yes,” and just kind of all this funny stuff that is worked into my brain from growing up in the late 80s early 90s.

Serwer: Have you been able to make any money off the popularity of Pepe? Has it been financially beneficial for you?

Furie: Here and there, I just did an official, it’s called Pepe Official clothing line, one of the items of clothing is a button up white shirt, with a pattern of Pepes on it, and all of those Pepes were kind of reflections of those crudely drawn, it almost looks like kids did them on microsoft paint or something. It was kind of like a bootleg of a bootleg. So I’m doing little enterprising things like that.

Serwer: Prior to this year, did the ubiquity of its use and people using him in different contexts, did that ever bother you?

Furie: It’s never bothered me, in fact it’s been kind of inspiring to me, just seeing how mostly kids and teenagers, and kind of the youthfulness of Pepe, is what I’m attracted to, and it’s been an inspiration and something that I’m proud of.

Serwer: How do you feel about the way it’s been adopted by the so-called alt-right?

Furie: My feelings are pretty neutral, this isn’t the first time that Pepe has been used in a negative, weird context. I think it’s just a reflection of the world at large. The internet is basically encompassing some kind of mass consciousness, and Pepe, with his face, he’s got these large, expressive eyes with puffy eyelids and big rounded lips, I just think that people reinvent him in all these different ways, it’s kind of a blank slate. It’s just out of my control, what people are doing with it, and my thoughts on it, are more of amusement.

Serwer: So it doesn’t make you uneasy at all that for some people it’s become this weird Nazi thing?

Furie: I think that’s it’s just a phase, and come November, it’s just gonna go on to the next phase, obviously that political agenda is exactly the opposite of my own personal feelings, but in terms of meme culture, it’s people reapproppriating things for their own agenda. That’s just a product of the internet. And I think people in whatever dark corners of the internet are just trying to one up each other on how shocking they can make Pepe appear.

The interesting thing about this situation, is that I’m talking to you, and it’s like a newsworthy thing that this cute, generally happy frog character has taken on a life of its own for better or worse. I think what is happening now is overshadowing the importance Pepe has as a symbol for youth culture, and it’s been taken out of context and turned into something other than that. I honestly just think it’s a phase.  

Serwer: Maybe you don’t have any insight into this at all, but why do you think they like Pepe so much?

Furie: One of the mutations of Pepe, he’s gone through happy, to sad, to all these different things, to people remixing it in these different ways. I think the smug version of Pepe, which is him just having a smug look on his face, his thumb under his chin, that one was kind of adopted into the Trump supporters’ campaign or whatever, and kind of encompasses the archetype of a smug character. I think Donald Trump is kind of a cartoon character himself, so I think it was just a natural thing, maybe to appeal to younger people or something.

Serwer: Did you read the explainer Hillary Clinton put up? And if you did how did that feel?

Furie: I read it, and I thought it was funny. Like I said I think it downplays the fact that Pepe is more than, whatever is happening in the news today, especially to younger people and to teenagers. For example, I get emails pretty regularly, from kids, from high schools, who need my permission to use Pepe in their senior shirts, or their clarinet club, or their photography clubs, and I tell them to go ahead as long as they sell me a shirt.

So beyond what’s happening today in the news, he’s really important to kids. I’ve got a cousin in suburban Ohio who plays volleyball, and she texted me because she’s all excited because she’s playing ‘Team Pepe’. So it’s cool for me to focus on the positive aspects of Pepe and really just see this as some kind of passing phase, because you know, everything changes.

Serwer: Do you have any regrets about Pepe or not having more control over his image?

Furie: I don’t have any regrets about anything. I do my own thing, and if anything, it’s been kind of interesting to see all the evolutions of Pepe. Yeah, no regrets.

Serwer: Where would you rank Pepe among the pantheon of fictional cartoon frogs?

Furie: I think the king is probably Kermit the Frog, you know I grew up on the Muppets, Jim Henson’s stuff. So nothing can really pass Kermit the Frog. But in terms of youth culture today, I’d say number one.