The Short, Strange Life of Pepe Le Frog

Born in 2005, Pepe Le Frog is dead. His creator, cartoonist Matt Furie recently laid him to rest in a comic created for Free Comic Book Day. Various geek and mainstream news sites have already reported on Pepe’s death. Forbes published a story titled, “Alt-Right Meme ‘Pepe The Frog’ Laid To Rest Over The Weekend. Will He Stay Dead?” The Guardian’s Elle Hunt reported:

Furie had been attempting to wrench back his “peaceful frog-dude” — whom he has often said he imagined as an extension of his personality — for more than six months. Pepe’s passing has been interpreted of his ceding control of the character.

So, Pepe is dead. But, who killed Pepe? Well, we all did. Probably. Maybe? Kinda.

Feels Good Man

Frogs have invaded internet consciousness. Professor and Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Jordan B Peterson considers the frog a particularly potent symbol. As an amphibian, a frog “lives in two worlds at once” representing liminal spaces. From Dark Kermit to dat boi, numerous amphibians have been spoofed and shared as various dank memes.

These memes have had varying levels of mainstream attention. Perhaps the oddest one in recent memory was Good Morning America’s “Tea Lizard” Twitter debacle. However, Pepe became the most visible and most controversial of them all.

An evolution of the dat boi meme
A chill Pepe still

Pepe was created as a chill, stoner frog. His origins were humble, originally drawn in Microsoft Paint for a self-published zine. Furie’s drawings have a distinctive, naive look. His simple character design also made Pepe easy to copy. Pepe became a frequent fixture on 4chan. Users of the site would adapt Pepe’s face and his catchphrase, “feels good man.”

Stories began to pop up with titles like “How Pepe the Frog Became a Nazi Trump Supporter and Alt-Right Symbol”. In this story, journalist Olivia Nuzzi delineates how Pepe became associated with the alt-right. Nuzzi’s reportage is careful to distinguish between Pepe’s comic book origins and his appropriation as an alt-right symbol. However, the story’s headline gave me pause. It suggests it is possible for a cartoon frog to become a Nazi Trump supporter.

Comic book characters have a strong symbolic language that has deeply been embedded in our culture. Even the most casual consumer of comics often has strong feelings toward beloved characters. We identify these characters differently than we do any other simple drawings. When someone points to a drawing of Garfield you don’t say “that is a picture of Garfield” — you say that is Garfield.

Feels Bad Man

Last October, Furie addressed his own horror at Pepe’s evolution in The Nib. In the comic “Pepe the Frog: To Sleep Perchance to Meme” Furie depicts a somber Pepe first transforming into a soft-serve coiffed Trump surrogate. Pepe deteriorates in spectacular surrealist horror, he melts and his eyes become mouths with sharp fangs. Finally, Pepe’s form further mutates until he explodes into a mushroom cloud. This sequence is revealed to be Pepe’s nightmare. The comic ends with the woken Pepe sinking through his bed and finally disappearing.

“To Sleep Perchance to Meme” seems to anticipate Pepe’s demise. His bed foreshadows his open-casket funeral.

Furie and The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) attempted to rehabilitate Pepe with a #SavePepe campaign:

https://youtu.be/1q6n1Yj3kRs

However, Pepe’s chance for salvation came and went without much fanfare. Fantagraphics, Furie’s publisher, issued a statement condemning Pepe’s use as a hate symbol. Titled “The Truth About Pepe the Frog” it states:

Most media reports now routinely default to a narrow description of Pepe as a representation of white supremacy, ignoring the mellow, positive-vibed frog that he is in the hands of his creator, Matt Furie, within the pages of Furie’s Boy’s Club comics (as collected by Fantagraphics Books). Yet the myriad copyright violations of recent weeks have resulted in Furie’s name now turning up in Anti-Defamation League database search results.

In February 2017, Furie would publish “Pepe: An Explainer” a hallucinogenic, near-wordless comic that purported to address Pepe’s true origins.

Pepe is dead. Long live Pepe.

In the end, Pepe’s brief life can be viewed as a cautionary tale of ownership. Furie’s control of the character ceded as soon as he published Pepe. Once a cultural product is put out there it is impossible to control what happens to it. We could not save Pepe.

Of course, you can’t really kill off a character — Pepe was never really alive in the first place. And putting Pepe to rest will not stop anyone from drawing him. First a character, then a meme, he has now become something else. His image will be widely spread, described as an emblem of hate, an avatar of the alt-right, a racist mascot. Of course, it is not Furie’s fault that Pepe was never able to regain his chill stoner frog status. Hopefully, Pepe’s death signifies a new kind of freedom for Furie.

Ultimately, it was imprecise language that led to Pepe’s downfall. He was described as a Nazi frog or a racist meme so many times by the media that their was no real chance of escape. Every time Pepe was included in the denunciation of the alt-right, and referred to as its mascot, a little bit of his soul was chipped away. Pepe remains on the ADL’s hate symbol database.