He’s green. He’s cute. He feels good, man. And he’s an internationally recognized icon of hatred and bigotry.
He’s Pepe the Frog, and he’s the subject of a new documentary tracking his unlikely journey from humble comic-book beginnings to a controversy involving death threats, lawsuits and scores upon scores of online neo-Nazis. Arthur Jones’s debut feature Feels Good Man – so titled for an oft-reposted image in which Pepe uses the phrase to explain why he urinates with his shorts around his ankles – examines how this strange bit of pop-culture ephemera took on a life of its own, far beyond what its creator had ever envisioned for it. The film also peers into the life of the artist Matt Furie, a mild-mannered slacker wholly unprepared for the task of regaining control over his digital Frankenstein’s monster. Between this odd little symbol and his conflicted father figure, a disturbing yet absurd picture of the great beast Internet starts to emerge, both as a haven of connectivity and a cesspool of intolerance.
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“Websites like 4chan create a surrogate family, same way you can form one at a bar,” Jones tells the Guardian via Zoom from his home quarantine. “You sit around, break each other’s balls, talk some shit, have fun and feel like you belong. And if someone tries to change the TV from the Giants game to RuPaul’s Drag Race, they’re going to get yelled at – all the cultural implications of those two choices intended.”
The beady-eyed, smiley-faced amphibian Pepe originated as one of the main characters from Furie’s comic Boy’s Club, a minor underground sensation about four anthropomorphized pals who mostly chill out and get loaded. A knowingly, congenially stoopid quality had been built into the concept; Furie landed on the name “Pepe” because it reminded him of the term “pee-pee”, a resemblance he found funny. That’s indicative of the artist’s sense of humor and general outlook on life as something not to be taken too seriously. He’s the type of person who’d be perfectly content to spend his days drawing cartoons and hanging with his family, someone hilariously incompatible with the occasional malevolence of the virtual world. Speaking about his resentment for those perverting Pepe’s original message of kindness, the harshest thing Furie can say is: “That really twists my noodles.”
“Matt radiates a sense of sweetness,” Jones explains. “He’s a very sensitive guy with a funny partier streak. We were into a lot of the same stuff, so we got along right away – comics, music, movies, an instant shorthand from stuff we were passionate about. There’s a moment in the film when one of Matt’s friends says that this could only happen to Matt. There’s something cosmic about something so surreal and evil falling into the lap of someone so kind and innocent. Matt is genuinely a pacifist.”
Already a fan of Boy’s Club, Jones met Furie for the first time on a hike in 2010, where the two men struck up a fast friendship. It wasn’t until seven years later, however, that Jones first saw the potential for a grander statement about our hectic, internet-besotted era in his pal’s predicament.
“We did our first interview about a year after the ADL declared Pepe an official hate symbol, at a time when Matt was in the middle of locking down the copyright,” Jones says. “They were trying to navigate the process of taking ownership of this character, reclaiming it from people like Richard Spencer and Alex Jones … I didn’t necessarily think I was ever going to make a film. The idea came out of my relationship with Matt, and observing how all the stuff that was happening in the culture was affecting him and his family.”
Pepe had been busy over the course of the 2010s. Users of forum sites like Reddit and 4chan, complex social networks offering a sense of kinship to many IRL loners, turned the “feels good man” panel into a meme with constantly shifting meaning. At first, Furie was tickled to see fellow weirdos using his doodles as a visual shorthand for pleasure and happiness, but the file’s free-use versatility turned out to be a double-edged sword. Pepe could be made to say, for instance, that the Holocaust felt good, man. Suddenly, the friendly frog was being given Hitler moustaches and Trumpian combovers by fringe extremists pairing the reluctant mascot with racist, homophobic and antisemitic invective. The alt-right wingnut Alex Jones and slickly coiffured white nationalist Richard Spencer glommed on to Pepe as a shared shibboleth between them and their followers on the 4chan politics board known as “/pol”. His crudely sketched smile, once a beatific expression of inner peace, had been twisted into a troll’s smirk of smug satisfaction.
As Furie began to look into his options for containing this phenomenon – and realized just how futile these efforts would be – Jones (Arthur, that is) ventured into 4chan’s heart of darkness. “I am a really private person, not much of an online presence,” he says. “I hadn’t spent any time on 4chan or Reddit. I heard about 4chan because my friend had a project called the Bit Eater, where he’d sell you a video loop that could trigger a hallucination if you started at it for long enough. He’d made like $900 on 4chan from this, and none of this made sense to me. I wanted to understand what this site meant to the people who use it.”
He reached out to users who could shed some light on the pathologies animating this pocket of online activity, particularly its nastier corners. These correspondences often ended with “confrontational back-and-forths”, Jones’s first true taste of the antagonism-as-sport that is these sites’ lingua franca. One of the film’s more colorful characters goes by “Mills”, a longtime 4channer well-versed in the craft and language of posting. He served as the production’s troll whisperer, connecting the on-and off-screen dimensions for a presumed audience of laypeople.
“4chan is an anonymous platform, and a lot of users take that anonymity as a point of pride,” Jones says. “Mills is someone whose face was on 4chan already. Most of them don’t publicize their identity; it’s kind of like breaking omertà. I found a YouTube channel with lots of his blogs, and there was one with only a handful of hits, labeled with the date it was made. From the page of all the videos, I randomly clicked on that one, and it was the one of him in bed with the phone held up, saying, ‘What does Pepe mean to me?’ I got goosebumps. I was like, ‘This guy’s in the movie.’”
Jones had a handful of those road-to-Damascus epiphanies while gathering personalities for the talking-head interviews that clarify this milieu. A memorably chilling moment comes courtesy of the former Trump campaign strategist Matt Braynard, who explains the genius of Pepe as the ultimate dogwhistle, meaningless to everyone except those tuned to his unsavory frequency. “There was a Politico article about him, standing in his office in front of a photo of a young Anne Coulter looking very much like Farrah Fawcett,” Jones says. “I had that feeling again. I started to pump my fist in the air and march around the room.”
And then there’s the self-styled playboy known as PepeCash Millionaire, a cryptocurrency trader living on a yacht he purchased using a Pepe-themed variant of Bitcoin. Jones laughs as he recalls his editor’s mother first learning of the eccentric commodity player, whose seeming guilelessness unlocked a key aspect of this mindset for Jones.
“He was a really interesting person to film with, very generous about letting us into his world,” Jones says. “Through the whole experience, I think there was a wink-wink quality to it. I had a very revealing conversation with him while driving from one location to another: his family is from eastern Europe, came to North America from a formerly Soviet country, which gives you a very particular perspective. Once we stripped away the edifice of bullshit and general trolly-ness, he exposed a really important truth, which I hadn’t grasped before. There’s an innocence to all this. He really saw Trump authentically representing his interest in draining the swamp. He didn’t see Trump as a con artist.”
The film ends with a pair of victories. Furie takes Alex Jones to court and wins, barring him from peddling merchandise bearing Pepe’s likeness and forcing him to cough up a handsome settlement. But the second triumph gives that first one a pyrrhic tang; Trump’s ascent and amassing of power hangs over the final act, with Pepe’s appropriation a mere symptom of a larger and more sinister ideology engendered by the current president. Furie may have gotten his life back, but his most famed creation remains the first casualty of the flame wars that have come to define the Trump era.
Midway through the chat on Zoom, Jones checks his buzzing phone. He makes a sound equal parts chuckle and moan of despair. “Even right now, my dad is compulsively sending me rightwing memes about the election,” he says. “The same way my dad spends six hours a day listening to conservative talk radio, we’ve now got kids spending six hours a day on /pol.”