Pepe the Frog, and his creator Matt Furie, were once both “chill” about how the Internet turned the cartoon slacker into a meme. Even as white nationalists and trolls started to adopt the Pepe meme as their own, cloaking him in racist imagery, Furie remained convinced that Pepe was just going through “a phase.” The Internet would soon move on, and Pepe could go back to being what he’d always been: the embodiment of “feels good, man.”
But then the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its list of hate symbols, and Furie decided something had to be done. Furie, along with the ADL, appealed to the Internet to help save Pepe from the “nightmare” he’d become. Furie published a sad indicator Saturday that his fight to save the character he first drew in a 2005 “Boy’s Club” comic was over: Pepe is dead.
The single-page comic came out Saturday, in Fantagraphics’ Free Comic Book Day anthology. In it, Pepe’s body lies in an open casket, as his “Boys’ Club” friends mourn him.
SPOILER ALERT MATT FURIE KILLS PEPE in the Fantagraphics free comic day thing!! pic.twitter.com/Ogdsr5hxnA
— Desert Island (@desertislandbk) May 6, 2017
Furie didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on his decision, or what, if anything, changed his mind about Pepe’s ability to be saved.
When the #savepepe campaign launched in October, Furie told The Washington Post that he hoped to return the frog to what he was always intended to be: the ultimate expression of “Chillaxin’.” His plan, essentially, was to flood the market with positive, feel-good memes about the frog that would overwhelm the bad Nazi-looking ones. He asked for, and got, help from other artists:
— Ilana Blady (@lanawhatever) October 23, 2016
Furie’s campaign is understandable. But it’s exceedingly hard to tell a meme what to be. The creation of a meme always involves the shedding of original context and the adaptation of new meanings. In Pepe’s case, Furie’s comic was posted to 4chan years ago, isolated into a single frame from that comic, and then further distilled into a single image of Pepe’s face, with the caption bubble “Feels good man.” He became a reaction meme.
More meanings followed, like sad Pepe. In the “rare Pepe” crisis of 2015, Pepe even became the center of a self-aware 4chan joke about the impossibility of controlling a meme, even one as long-lived and popular as the frog. For most of Pepe’s meme life cycle, Furie embraced this chaos, he told The Post last fall. He “re-bootlegged” the Internet’s many manifestations of Pepe into his own work. His personal favorites, he said were “the more charming, kids drawings of Pepe, the ones where he’s crudely drawn on MS Paint.”
Furie saw his frog dropped into “the entire range of human experience online over the years, from simple innocence to the most f—ed up, racist, tortuous stuff,” he said in September. When Pepe started to show up in a ton of racist memes, he initially saw it as the “natural progression of anonymous people on the Internet.” He gave media interviews when the meme spread into the elections: Donald Trump Jr. posted an image with Pepe in it to Instagram; Hillary Clinton’s campaign published an “explainer” in response calling Pepe a “symbol associated with white supremacy.” Furie encouraged people to read the original comics instead to learn what Pepe was really like.
Then, he decided Pepe needed some help. “I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love,” Furie wrote in Time magazine in October as part of his efforts to win Pepe back from the racists and anti-Semites of the Internet. And while the nature of memes almost dictated that his campaign was doomed to fail, Furie did a lot of things right: He understood that Pepe, the meme, was not under his control. His solution was not, as some might try, to erase Pepe from the Internet. It was simply to make more memes, lots of them, and ones he’d actually like.
When it didn’t work, Furie apparently gave up on trying to change Pepe, and decided to kill him instead.
There are many ways to “kill” a meme, to make it less appealing to the Internet’s masses. Pepe has survived many of them in some form — from being tweeted by celebrities like Katy Perry, to saturation, to the simple march of time, to spawning a “hate symbol” manifestation.
The campaign to “save” Pepe might be over now, but it was always too late. Pepe is now a part of right-wing online culture, protected from earnest analysis by layers of irony. Pepe’s face is used both by genuine white supremacists and by anti-PC conservatives and Trump supporters who think it’s funny to freak out liberals and the media by using “racist” symbols.
So Pepe is dead now — at least the Pepe of Furie’s world, the “Boy’s Club” comic Pepe, the Pepe who is “love.” It probably means nothing for the meme it’s become.