Pepe the Frog began life as a relatable, early 20s slacker for the readers of Matt Furie’s mid-2000s comic series. Then, Pepe became one of the Internet’s best memes, a smiling frog face that embodied the phrase, “feels good, man.” Pepe has been a lot of things over the past decade, but something dark has happened to the frog recently. More and more these days, he’s wearing an impossible head of Trump-like blondish hair, and hanging out with white supremacists.
This new Nazi Pepe is definitely not chill, and people are not being chill about the new Pepe. After Donald Trump’s son posted a photoshopped image to Instagram with a Pepe in it this weekend, NBC News went for it and called Pepe a “popular white nationalist symbol.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign website then posted an entire explainer on Trump’s “horrifying” use of a frog meme, which called Pepe “a symbol associated with white supremacy.”
This is how an old meme made its debut into the mainstream consciousness: as a dark symbol of the white supremacist movement’s support of Donald Trump, a smug green frog, now morphed to look more like Trump, read as secret code for the campaign’s relationship with the “alt right.”
The frog is talked about as a green manifestation of the Internet’s dark fringes, a mascot whose popularity there rivals that of Trump’s. In a lot of ways, that’s where he’s at right now. A Pepe avatar on Twitter is now generally read as a sign of an alt-right affiliation. A single social media post from the Trump dynasty with a Pepe meme in it is now a multiday campaign issue.
The story of how Pepe went from a good meme to a Nazi sympathizer, is, like the Internet, chaotic and filled with apocrypha. The Daily Beast made the most thorough attempt so far to explain it, by talking to a couple of 4channers who said the whole thing was a gleeful attempt to “reclaim” Pepe from the “normies” like Katy Perry. By making Pepe racist and unpalatable to his new fans, the frog became theirs alone to use.
Still, the questions remain: is Pepe really just a Nazi now? Can he ever not be that again? How strange is it that reporters for major news outlets are now scouring the Internet for information on the racial politics of a fictional frog? We called Furie, the 37-year-old artist who created Pepe a decade ago. And Furie isn’t too worried about Pepe’s future, at least in the long term.
“I think he’s on a weird manifestation right now,” Furie said, “It’s unfortunate that he’s peaking nationally in the news in this really negative way, but I think it’s just a phase.”
“Ultimately, I hope Pepe will live on as a symbol of peacefulness and of being a cool, chill frog that kids like to share with each other on the Internet,” he said.
There are, as Furie tells it, really two Pepes out there in the world: the comic book character he created, and the meme that has always existed outside of his control, mainly shaped by a bunch of kids on 4chan.
Pepe the character began as one of a group of slacker roommates in Furie’s comic series Boys’ Club. “He was the everyman frog,” Furie said. “They just cracked jokes and ragged on each other. The mood was pointless, early 20-something college humor.”
Pepe, the meme, was born a few years later, when a 4channer posted a page from Furie’s work to the boards there. The page showed Pepe from the back, pants fully down to the ground, and urinating (now would be a good time to mention that Pepe, while a frog, has a humanlike body).
4chan distilled Pepe down to a single moment from that cartoon, where Pepe finally answers for his unusual, “pants all the way to the ground” approach to relieving himself. Pepe smiles and explains, “Feels good man.” That’s the earliest Pepe meme, basically a reaction meme of the frog saying that phrase.
“I didn’t even know what a meme was,” Furie said, until someone clued him in to Pepe’s secret double life.
There were then many other Pepes. “Feels bad, man” Pepe, who is sad. There was the John Goodman version — Furie’s personal favorite — which is just a photo of the actor, captioned “Feels Goodman.” Someone drew a smug Pepe; someone else made an angry Pepe, a red-tinted image where the frog is shaking with rage. Each was encoded with its own meaning, particularly on 4chan, where Pepe reactions have gone in and out of fashion over the years.
All that time, Furie was just basically enjoying the ride. “It’s fun to see all these new interpretations and jokes with him,” he said. And he started using some of the meme versions of Pepe in his own work, “re-bootlegging” the Internet’s treasure trove of crudely drawn Pepes into his own artwork. Furie’s favorites to reappropriate are “the more charming, kids drawings of Pepe, the ones where he’s crudely drawn on MS Paint.”
Pepe bled into the wider digital culture around 2015, as part of the fallout from 4chan’s Rare Pepe crisis. “Rare Pepes,” as Know Your Meme explains, was what you called original Pepe drawings. As part of the joke, people talked about “‘rare’ images of Pepe as if they were trading cards.”
The “Rare” Pepe collection frenzy became a crossover meme, catching on over at Tumblr to the point that it was the biggest meme on the site for 2015. When someone “flooded the market” by republishing hundreds of formerly “rare” images, the joke escalated even further.
The mayhem caught the attention of a bunch of media outlets; BuzzFeed eventually republished the entire collection of 1,200 “rare” Pepes. But by then, people were already worried that the meme was too mainstream and therefore over.
At this point, the “rare” Pepe joke has given way to “Nazi” Pepe, at least for now. But as Furie noted, Pepe was never totally safe for work. Over the years, the frog has been memed into the “entire range of human experience, from simple innocence to the most f—ed up, racist, tortuous stuff.”
For Furie, racist Pepe is just part of the “natural progression of anonymous people on the Internet,” and not something he can do anything about. Besides, he suggested, all the mainstream attention to Nazi Pepe is probably just making the trolls behind him happy.
“These dudes are probably pretty excited that it’s getting national attention right now,” he said. “I mean, it just all seems like a weird joke.”
And that, to him, feels in character for this particular manifestation of Pepe, the one that, among other things, supports Trump: “The whole presidential campaign to me — which I haven’t really been following too closely — seems like a joke, too,” he said.
Although the meme remains out of his control, Furie guessed that his version of Pepe would have nothing to do with Trump: “He’s a frog and he’s green, so if anything, he’d support the Green Party, and be like an ecologist and a feminist. He’s a cool, green frog dude,” he said.
That’s why Nazi Pepe “just doesn’t make sense to me” as an idea, he said, “but all I can really do at this point is use [Pepe] as a platform to show my own ideas, rather than dwell in the Darth Vader dark side of the meme that’s happening.”
So, what does that look like? Furie has responded to Nazi Pepe with a Pepe drawing of his own, which he kindly sent to The Intersect when we asked for permission to use an image of Pepe. The image depicts a Furie-version of Pepe wearing a red “Make Pepe Great Again” hat. He’s slyly grinning over his shoulder as, shorts partially lowered, he urinates on another Pepe, one that bears a striking resemblance to Trump.