It’s an awful feeling for an artist, having a beloved work be put to sinister and destructive purposes. Once a work is out in the world, the artist has no control over it: everyone who makes art understands this on an abstract level. But to actually see it happen is something else entirely.
That’s what happened to artist Matt Furie, the protagonist of “Feels Good Man,” a documentary directed by Furie’s close friend, artist Arthur Jones. Furie created Pepe the Frog, a bug-eyed stoner amphibian with a vibe in the vicinity of Cheech and Chong or Jeff Lebowski. Then, over an increasingly agonizing period of years, he saw the character appropriated by other people (including celebrities), then ultimately refashioned as the mascot of the so-called alt right, a loose assortment of internet denizens obsessed with creating uncertainty and chaos through trolling.
You’ve probably seen the infamous image of Calvin from the classic comic strip “Calvin & Hobbes” peeing on a symbol of some designated enemy while staring at the viewer with a malicious expression. The image never appeared in the original strip, but over the past 25 years, it has spread all over the world, focusing on targets from Florida State University’s football team to various NASCAR drivers and, in 1996, the boss of some disaffected police officers (the officers were caught spreading images of Calvin urinating on their hated supervisor, and got suspended without pay). Bootleg t-shirts and decals from fly-by-night companies spread the image without authorization from Watterson and his publisher, United Press International, who tried to prosecute the people responsible but had to give up because there were too many, and they were just too elusive.
A similar thing happened with Pepe, on a grander scale. As chronicled in “Feels Good Man,” Furie, who has been obsessed with frogs since childhood, introduced the character in 2005 in his comic series “Boy’s Club.” Pepe was appropriated in fitness videos first, and Furie let it go. But then Pepe somehow became an emblem on 4chan and then 8chan message boards, where users took pride in inflicting emotional distress on strangers in such a way as to maintain deniability about what they were doing. The frog’s expression—as described by other illustrators and meme experts consulted for the film—had sort of an ugly Mona Lisa aspect. Inscrutable yet knowing. Superficially blasé or innocent, but at the same time, conscious and responsible. Your gut told you this frog was up to no good, but you couldn’t prove it.
“Feels Good Man” is essentially a detective story, tracking the origin and evolution of a deliberate appropriate of an artist’s work for purposes that go against everything he and his work are about. Not content to string together talking head interviews, it uses art and animation to visualize what happened to the character and his creator, finding a cinematic equivalent for Pepe’s evolution from a quirky cartoon animal into a weapon.
One of the more fascinating substrains of the story shows how 4chan users immediately began to act as if they, not Furie, invented and owned Pepe. Once modified/distorted Pepe images migrated off message boards and onto social media, they were put to different, often self-serving uses in the mainstream (even getting borrowed by celebrities Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj). The people who had stolen and altered Pepe went all-out to “reclaim” the character from so-called “normies.” It was a warped-mirror version of Furie’s legitimate quest.
Things got worse after Pepe started being presented as the Mickey Mouse or SpongeBob Squarepants of authoritarian fascist fanboys: an outwardly “harmless” or “innocent” symbol for targeted cruelty or hatred. Right-wing hate culture had been driven mostly underground in regular life (although of course there were eruptions here and there, and hateful messages were spread daily over public airwaves via the megaphones of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Alex Jones, Fox News Channel, Breitbart News, and the like. During the late aughts and early teens, this tendency moved out of the shadows and into political daylight, in response to demographic shifts in the U.S., eight years of governance by the first Black president, and a growing alarm among some white Americans that political and cultural power sharing was in their future, and would not be optional.
Once Donald Trump entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination and based his campaign around shouting things that American reactionaries had been conditioned to whisper, or just not say, Pepe became associated with Trump supporters, then with Trump himself. An image of Pepe with Trump’s orange angel-hair-pasta pompadour spread over the Internet. Then Trump retweeted it in October, 2015, and the association became official. A once-harmless cartoon amphibian was inextricably linked to a corrupt and destructive president whose governing style was built around chaos and fear. Trump was perfectly aligned with an emerging political strain that specialized in initiating or amplifying distress and disorder, getting off on the aftermath, but leaving just enough of a grey area in terms of intent that the targets felt gaslit for correctly believing that they’d been the objects of a virtual attack. (One source in the film describes the appropriated Pepe as an “impossible mixture of innocence and evil.”)
The most chilling moment reconstructs message board traffic during a public appearance by Trump’s Democratic opposition, Hillary Clinton. An alt right supporter in the room yelled “Pepe!” at Clinton after being egged on to do so. “To the white supremacist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi alt right in this country, that was a moment of triumph,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow noted later.
Pepe was been turned into something he was never intended to be. His creator and steward didn’t realize what was occurring until it was too late to halt or reverse it. The film’s chronicle of Furie’s increasing despair and disillusionment syncs up with changes in the United State’s collective character and self-image. Without putting too fine a point on it, “Feels Good Man” links the hijacking of one cartoonist’s intellectual property with the hijacking of a nation’s norms, laws, and institutions: a systematic process of subversion, perversion, theft, and distortion, happening mostly out of sight for a long time, then finally emerging into daylight, secure in the belief that the most decisive damage had been done, and there was no going back to how things were.