But to his readers, and his employer, the resemblance between the Pepe on Hauser’s cover and the Pepe in white supremacist memes was impossible to ignore. It didn’t help that the book’s antagonist was a bearded alligator named “Alkah.”
Earlier this month, publication of the book led to Hauser’s removal as assistant principal of his middle school in Denton, Tex.
Now, the creator of Pepe the Frog, who never intended the character to be a political symbol, has lashed back at Hauser, threatening to sue him and forcing him to halt all distribution of the book. According to lawyers for Matt Furie at WilmerHale, Hauser admitted that he infringed on Furie’s intellectual property rights.
Hauser’s book, Furie’s lawyers wrote, “espoused racist, Islamophobic and hate-filled themes, included allusions to the alt-right movement and was deliberately targeted at children.”
But Furie didn’t stop there — he required that Hauser give all of his profits from the book to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
It’s a relatively small chunk of money — $1,521.54, Furie’s lawyers told Motherboard. But the demands send a clear message to those who Furie says turned Pepe the Frog into an “institutionally recognized hate mascot.”
Furie is determined to reclaim the character he once conceived as a “peaceful frog-dude,” a happy-go-lucky little guy known for his catchphrase, “feels good man.”
Pepe began as a character in Furie’s comic book series “Boy’s Club,” which ran in the mid-2000s. By 2014, the green-skinned critter with the heavy lids became a popular, lighthearted meme. Then, Pepe took a dark turn. The frog began appearing in association with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In September, the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol.
Furie has launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a new comic book restoring Pepe’s status as a “universal symbol for peace, love, and acceptance.” The new publication will celebrate “a resurrected Pepe, one that shall shine a light in all this darkness and feel good again,” Furie wrote on the online campaign.
Hauser’s book, which was published Aug. 1 and later picked up by conservative-leaning publishing house Post Hill Press, is the first instance in which Furie has threatened legal action, according to his lawyers.
The book’s plot takes place on a farm named “Wishington.” Pepe’s centipede friend is named “Pede,” a term members of a Donald Trump-themed Reddit board call one another. There’s even a cliff called Covfefe.
An old farmer has left after eight years of oppression, as The Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. wrote describing the book. “But Alkah and his minions have entrenched themselves in a pond that very much resembles a swamp — and are threatening to spread throughout all of Wishington Farm.”
Mohammed Fouad, the imam at the Denton Islamic Center, told the Denton Record-Chronicle that his 11-year-old daughter instantly associated the alligator with Allah, the Muslim name for God.
“If a child reads this, what will they think?” Fouad told the Record-Chronicle. “To take these ideals into a classroom is wrong. Hatred shouldn’t be taught.”
A spokesman for Post Hill Press defended the book earlier this month, saying it was not incendiary, and had “no hidden agenda.”
“Really, the ultimate theme is law and order,” the spokesman said. “This is a feel-good story in support of good versus evil. And that’s what we should be embracing.”
Hauser previously claimed he was unaware of the controversy surrounding Pepe. But the book’s illustrator, Nina Khalova, provided documents to the Denton Record-Chronicle showing that Hauser clearly knew the character already existed.
In June, Hauser sent Khalova a project description with an image of Pepe the Frog, writing, “I want The Frog to look very similar to this frog. He will wear a blue shirt.”
Khalova, a Ukrainian-based illustrator, said she didn’t know about the amphibian’s darker meaning.
“I didn’t even imagine that the Frog and Centipede could be turned into these horrible things,” she told the Denton Record-Chronicle.
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