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What Happens When Hillary Clinton Calls Your Cartoon Frog Racist

This morning, Hillary Clinton’s official campaign website published an explainer about a cartoon frog. His name is Pepe. You know Pepe. He’s that forest green, anthropomorphic frog with the maroon lips; the one from all the memes. Sometimes, he looks blissed out and stoner-eyed while uttering the phrase “feels good man” [sic]. Other times, he looks existentially downtrodden. Occasionally, he’s stroking his chin while contemplating mischief or he’s screaming at the top of his lungs. He’s near-infinitely mutable, and versions of his visage have been posted online by untold numbers of people, among them Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and — most important, at least for the Clinton campaign — Donald Trump and his son.

Neither the elder or the younger Trump actually crafted the Pepe images they posted — credit for that goes to the hateful meme factories of the so-called alt-right. Indeed, Pepe has become something of a mascot for them. But Pepe predates their rise to national prominence, and his creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, could not be less connected to their movement. He’s been drawing Pepe on and off as part of a surreal comic strip called Boy’s Club since 2005, and he doesn’t seem to care at all about the ways the character has been used to create havoc online. “Politics are for dorks,” he tells me in an email.

Trump’s retweeting of a Pepe meme seemed like a nonevent to him. “I’m sure it was just a young Republican dude posting it to appeal to smug Trumpies,” he says. “It was just as amusing as anything else stupid on the internet.” When I ask him if any use of Pepe has shocked or disgusted him, he replies, “Not really — there is all kinds of idiotic stuff on the internet. I usually just check my email or go on Facebook or something.”

This attitude fits with Furie’s general discomfort while discussing his wayward amphibian. The creation’s fame has utterly dwarfed that of its creator, a working artist who didn’t ask for any of this and has received little from it — after all, it’s not like he makes royalties off of crappy MS Paint jobs. Furie isn’t ashamed of his brainchild, but he seems profoundly ambivalent about its ubiquity. “Pepe is everything and nothing,” Furie says. “He is stupid and amazing at the same time — kinda like life. Pepe is life.”

Pepe first appeared as one of the four protagonists of Boy’s Club when Furie began publishing it on his MySpace page in 2005. The strip has continued in fits and starts since then, and was just compiled in a book this summer. The collection follows four slobby, slap-happy roommates cruising through a drug-hazed postadolescence: energetic Brett, charming Andy, hedonistic Landwolf, and unassuming Pepe. The strips eschew narrative in favor of goofy and disorienting tableaux.

In one, Landwolf smokes a cigarette for five panels, and then farts. In another, Andy and Pepe discuss Pepe’s new “NOBODY KNOWS I’M A LESBIAN” T-shirt. There are multiple strips that solely consist of Brett dancing on a mattress while popular songs play in his headphones. The boys chat about their feces, play video games, and occasionally smoke so much weed that they gleefully imagine their faces mutating. The longest story is about Landwolf taking an epic shit, the gang putting it in the freezer, and Pepe almost accidentally eating it (“based on a real event,” Furie says).

And, fatefully, there’s a strip where Landwolf asks Pepe about the latter’s habit of fully dropping trou while peeing. It ends with a chill Pepe declaring, “feels good man.” According to the researchers at Know Your Meme, an adaptation of that last panel first showed up on chaotic image-sharing message board in early 2008. It went viral there, and, for some reason, on a bodybuilding forum, getting an array of modifications from user after user. Another Boy’s Club panel, one where Pepe frowns, was also copied and pasted into the fray.

For a few years, Furie was wholly unaware of what people were doing with his character. Only around 2010 did he find out that Pepe was “making some big waves of the web waves,” as he puts it. His memories of finding out about the memes are hazy, but he recalls being excited by some of the stuff he saw: “Someone even made a ‘feels good man’ song/YouTube music video that even my dad was impressed with!” he says. “Hi Dad!!”

He started to get some belated attention. In 2010, he did an interview with Know Your Meme’s A.J. Mazur about the Pepe phenomenon. He said he felt “a little weird” about the fact that the image had been altered from its original form, but that he was glad people occasionally noticed that he was the original artist. In subsequent interviews, he vacillated between earnest reflection (“It’s this almost post-capitalist kind of success,” he told Sean T. Collins in a Vice chat) and deep sarcasm (“As your God, my hope is to enhance your Pepe birthing experience by empowering you through it,” he told the Daily Dot’s Imad Khan).

These days, it’s still hard to tell how he feels about what’s happened to his most famous character. “I’ve realized that Pepe is beyond my control,” he says. “He’s like a kid, he grew up and now I have to set him free to live his life. It’s all good.” When I ask how closely he’s tracked Pepe’s evolution, he briefly says his brother showed him some Google analytics for mentions of the character. “I’m writing to you right now nude from a bathtub in San Luis Obispo!” he writes. “I’ve made it!!!!!!! YEAHHHHHHHH!!! WHOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

One thing he clearly expresses is how little he’s been moved by Pepe’s most notable moments of fame. I ask how it felt when Perry and Minaj posted Pepe memes and all he says is, “I don’t care.” I bring up last year’s bizarre “Rare Pepe” craze, in which 4chan users semi-seriously attempted to counteract mainstream appropriation of Pepe by flooding the board with unique versions of him; he muses, “I just sit back, relax and let the Pepes fall where they land, my friend!”

Furie says people email him Pepes “[p]retty much everyday.” “Someone just sent one that was based on a quote I said at a comic convention panel,” he adds. “Something about a new frog in town and it had ‘Dat Boi’” (referring, of course, to the year’s best meme so far). That said, he doesn’t seek Pepes out. “I don’t sit there and trip out on Pepe all day like you seem to think,” he says. “I’m just a normal guy trying to connect with people and have a good time.” He doesn’t seem that interested in discussing the other characters and comics, either. “They are what they are: just weird comics about a bunch of weird fraggles hanging out in mysterious nothingness,” he says. I ask him if he sees any sadness in the quartet’s gross lives and his reply is blunt: “No, they are just dumb cartoons.”

Whatever Furie’s feelings about what he’s created, the book has been a chance for him to finally make some real money off of Pepe. He published a few short, comic-book-length Boy’s Club compilations in the late ‘00s and did some new strips for The Believer around the turn of the decade, but he mostly stopped drawing Pepe and the gang around 2012. Press materials for the new compilation — published by Fantagraphics — prominently emphasized Furie’s association with Pepe. It’s a marketing choice he’s made his peace with. “I just let them do their thing and I did mine,” he says. “It’s all good.”

But ultimately, it doesn’t seem like Furie loses much sleep over questions about Pepe’s significance or what the frog means for him as an artist. Or, at least, that’s the image he wants to project. “I love to Google my own name,” he says. “I’m much more concerned about ‘Matt Furie.’ I’ll never be as popular as the frog, but I’m alive: something he can never be.”

When Hillary Clinton Calls Your Cartoon Frog Racist