Artist Matt Furie is in an unenviable position. He’s the creator of Pepe the Frog, the character that became a meme in 2008 and more recently a hate symbol associated with the alt-right. Now, Furie is intent on salvaging Pepe’s tarnished reputation.
Furie originally created Pepe as part of his Boy’s Club comics back in 2005. Years later, snippets of one specific comic where Pepe says, “Feels good, man,” began to circulate online. Almost a decade later, these memes became linked to the alt-right and other Trump-supporting circles. The Anti-Defamation League ended up categorizing Pepe as a hate symbol because of it.
But that hasn’t stopped Furie. He and the ADL teamed up for a #SavePepe social media campaign late last year. He’s expressed disappointment in Pepe’s alt-right associations, but remains unwilling to let them taint his own interpretation of the character.
Now he’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to save Pepe through a new edition of Boy’s Club that continues on with the character’s original intention. We reached out to Furie to better understand his ongoing fight.
The Outline: How would you describe Pepe to people who aren’t familiar with him?
Matt Furie: Well, I would describe him as a 20-something frog that likes to just kind of chill out and take naps, watch television, and hang out with his buddies.
That’s the character as I intended him, but of course most people know Pepe the Frog as a internet meme — which kind of goes beyond my own interpretation of the frog and enters the realm of the multiplicity of internet users out there. Pepe became a meme on the internet for years and years, and was reinterpreted in many different ways. It started off as the snippet from my comic book of a frog just saying, “Feels good, man,” and then it became a frog face that was open to all kinds of different interpretations from being smug, to sad, to rage, to whatever.
And obviously there’s the sort of darker interpretation that’s come to light in the past couple years.
During the recent election, Pepe was kind of thrown around by the two presidential candidates — one being our now-president. Donald Trump tweeted a Pepe version of himself, and he tagged Breitbart News and whoever else, and that alerted the Hillary Clinton campaign to say that Pepe was actually much more sinister than what people would believe. Then it got to a point where he was on a list of institutionally recognized hate symbols. Yeah, Pepe’s been all over the map, from innocent to extremism.
“Pepe’s been all over the map, from innocent to extremism.”
Recently, you killed Pepe.
I show him in an open casket surrounded by friends. This was a comic strip that I did for a Free Comic Book Day comic for Fantagraphics. They asked me to come up with a new comic, and it was right after Donald Trump got elected. This comic was just kind of my own kind of art therapy and dealing with the fact that Trump got elected and the new twist on Pepe that ensued. I decided to lay him to rest. But really it was just a joke, and a way for me to deal with the weirdness that was happening.
So the character himself wasn’t killed, it was more of a metaphorical kind of thing?
I mean in my mind, yeah. I didn’t realize that it would get the attention that it did. In fact, I kind of forgot about it after I did it. The comic itself I finished shortly after the election, and the Free Comic Book Day wasn’t until months later. When that came out, I guess it struck a nerve with people because the symbolism of Pepe is pretty loaded at this point and that was just another interesting turn to the story. The media and whoever else is constructing their narrative.
If the media is constructing their narrative, what’s your narrative?
My narrative is that Pepe’s just a cartoon character. I’ve obviously lost control of it in some bigger kind of internet scope or media scope, but at heart Pepe is still a character that I made. It’s a character that resonates with me, and I still would like to continue to use Pepe and try to show that he can just be a chilled-out peaceful frog.
People talk a lot about memes and different imagery being co-opted by the alt-right or Nazis or whatever hate group you want to pick. Would you say that you’re attempting to reclaim your own creation?
I’m just doing what I would do in any situation. I’m not really one for paying attention to so-called hate groups or fringe groups or politics or the news in general, I’m more of an escapist. But I see this as an opportunity to say what Pepe is to me, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do that as the creator. A lot of people on both sides of the spectrum get pissed off when I try to use Pepe.
It’s weird that people claim some kind of ownership over something where it’s just like, “No, it’s my character. I can do whatever the hell I want with it despite what anybody says.” From people in the left-wing media saying it’s impossible for me to control something that’s already been established as a hate symbol to the people who are enjoying it being some kind of weird mascot for their hateful agenda. I just kind of ignore both of those things and continue to be creative and do my thing.
“No, it’s my character. I can do whatever the hell I want with it despite what anybody says.”
Now the Kickstarter, is this a continuation of the Save Pepe campaign with the Anti-Defamation League previously?
It’s all part of the same process of trying to just throw a canary in the coal mine and see if it comes out. So far I’ve gotten some support, so it’s cool to see people out there who are still interested in my interpretation of Pepe and my hope that I can steer the ship into a direction of something less scary and more fulfilling for your soul.
The goal of the Kickstarter is to create a new Boy’s Club zine, sort of the original Pepe, right?
I’m just going to continue telling the same story that I’ve always told with Pepe and the boys, but there might be some twists in there. Who knows. It’s exciting to just take this thing on in a creative way where I’m working with my brother and doing something that’s creative rather than begrudgingly holding onto some idea of what Pepe is. I’m just going to continue making him what I think he is.
The last two years have to have been pretty weird for you.
Yeah, it’s just as weird as anything though. I don’t believe things are so black and white. I just kind of wait around to see what happens next, and it’s always been interesting so far so I’m…enjoying the ride.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.