Pepe the Frog Foretold the Fraught World of Modern Memes

At the start of the documentary Feels Good Man, cartoonist Matt Furie bends down in a marsh and scoops up a small green frog no bigger than his thumb. He looks like a dad who probably owns a skateboard—shorts, patterned shirt, yellow ball cap, California chill. Furie smiles as the frog settles on his outstretched hand. For a moment, it poses like a miniature garden statue. Then it skitters up Furie’s arm and out of his gentle control. Furie doesn’t react. It’s hardly the first frog to slip away from him.

When Furie first drew Pepe the Frog, a cartoon that’s become one of the most recognizable and controversial memes in the world, it was just another doodle, the latest in a long line of anthropomorphic amphibians. “It’s just been kind of a slow drip of frogs all my life,” Furie says. In 2005, Pepe became a part of Furie’s comic Boy’s Club, a series about a silly, slovenly group of friends in an early-twenties funk. By 2016, Pepe the Frog was an online hate symbol, a racist, beswastikaed nightmare creature beloved by digital white supremacists. Pepe’s catchphrase, “Feels good, man,” was also subjected to sinister remix. The line Furie wrote as a weirdo’s response to being caught peeing with his pants around his ankles passed through the darkest of internet prisms and became “Kill Jews, man.” “I’m just a spectator,” Furie says.

Feels Good Man does linger on the anguished online reactionaries who took Pepe from fratty to fascist, but mostly, it doodles an intimate, uncomfortable portrait of a naive cartoonist trying to drag a JPEG back from the maw of 4chan’s ugliest corners—simply because it’s right and because it’s his. He’s a children’s book author, an unlikely gladiator, except for how he isn’t. In 2020, creators’ struggle to wrest ownership of their art from the internet is the biggest dustup in town. By telling Furie’s story, Feels Good Man lays the choreography and competing emotions of that struggle bare. Pepe the Frog isn’t really a frog anymore, just an enigmatic prize in a fight that nobody’s really figured out how to win.

If there’s a criticism to be made of Feels Good Man, which premieres today at the Sundance Film Festival, it’s that you leave the documentary feeling somewhat overstuffed. Matt Furie may have an intelligible arc from apathy to upset to pseudo triumph, but Pepe? Pepe’s all over the place. “One of the reasons [Pepe] was able to be co-opted so easily is because people didn’t understand where it had come from,” says director Arthur Jones. “From the beginning, I knew I wanted Matt’s comics to come to life.” In between its talking heads, Feels Good Man is an acid trip of Furie-style animations, songs performed by fans of Boy’s Club, original Pepe drawings that have nothing to do with Boy’s Club, 4chan imageboard conversations, videos of teenage girls painting their faces to look like Pepe’s. Jones spent months on 4chan just collecting it all, and it shows. Then again, Pepe is a meme. His story’s nonsensical crowdedness is so inevitable it’s almost more satisfying that way: Like Furie’s Pepe, you drown in the digital chatter.

At its best, Feels Good Man is a keen observer of Furie’s emotional journey, rendering it in a way that’s subtle and spare and seems true. Furie hardly emotes and the documentary doesn’t try to make him, but you can hear everything in a few quotes. He’s almost a three-panel comic. At first, he’s the world’s calmest punk: “I’m an artist,” he says. “I don’t like suing other artists.” Slowly, he becomes disillusioned. He’s a guy whose work has gone viral, but when he meets fans, they say it must suck to have his work “hijacked.” “It definitely sucks, but nothing’s forever,” he says. Then, even more quietly, he wavers: “Right? Hehe.” The last step doesn’t even come from Furie himself, but is reported by his partner, artist Aiyana Udesen. “He’s thinking, ‘I’ve worked my whole life as an artist, and now I’m going to be lumped in with this weird new swastika?’” It takes him a long time to realize that his creation has become honey for a swarm of bigoted bees, and longer still to decide if he wants to do anything about it.

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