When the Anti-Defamation League named Pepe the Frog a hate symbol, the character’s creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, didn’t seem to know quite what to say or do about the transformation of his character from “frog everyman” to beloved avatar of 4chan trolls and the white supremacist alt-right.
In an interview with the Washington Post he said “I think he’s on a weird manifestation right now […] 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 then that the alt-right’s adoption of Pepe was just part of the natural life cycle of internet memes, and like so much about the 2016 American presidential election, was “just a weird joke.” What could he do, he asked, except draw more positive Pepes?
Pepe’s gross ascendancy caused confusion in the ~lamestream media, who had to explain Pepe, 4chan, and the transformative power of memes to their audiences. The Clinton campaign released an explainer. Furie and his publisher, Fantagraphics, pushed a new drawing of the frog man pissing on Trump’s everything, with the hashtag #MakePepeGreatAgain. They encouraged artists to join in with their own pieces and disdain for Trump.
— Fantagraphics Books (@fantagraphics) September 13, 2016
They also published a blog post on The Truth About Pepe The Frog. The post unreservedly rejected the alt right’s appropriation of Pepe, which they emphasized was both gross and infringing — putting Pepe on logos, stickers, and apparel is, after all, copyright violation.
“Fantagraphics Books and Matt Furie, the creator of the eternally chill comic book character Pepe the Frog, condemn the illegal and repulsive appropriations of the character by racist fringe groups linked to the alt right movement and the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Furie’s character has been categorized as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League as a result of these uses, creating significant emotional and financial harm for the creator.”
The post goes on to call out media reports on the phenomenon that don’t contextualize Pepe as a comic turned meme turned hate symbol and say that, hey guys, maybe you should interview Furie (shoot us an email, please oh god, ffs). Considering the number of texts I got after the ADL announcement from non-comics reading friends and colleagues about the Pepe phenomenon — “I shared a frog comic once. Was it a Nazi frog?” — this was the right move, but not nearly enough to counteract the alt right’s meme machine and, well, bad reporting. Maybe Pepe was just… gone.
Now Furie has released a new comic that plumbs the depths of his personal Trumpian nightmare, laying his horror bare. Unlike the WP interview that positioned Furie as mostly shrugging off Pepe’s turn to the dark side, “Pepe the Frog: To Sleep, Perchance to Meme,” makes it clear that the screaming void of panic fear has made camp in Furie’s head.
Pepe isn’t a chill frog anymore and both he and Furie know it. Here is Pepe just doing his things, lost in some ineffable emotion. But then… a tuft of straw-yellow hair grows on his temple. His youthfully green face begins to wrinkle; his lips turn up in a smug grin. He has become Trump-frog, an avatar of (not at all crypto) facist white supremacy. Pepe’s features collapse in a sob, a last moment of tru-pep, before being sucked into the toothsome horror of the Trump-frog’s final form. Pepe can only watch forlornly from within as Trump-frog sets off a nuclear apocalypse.
Pepe wakes up from this horrific sequence, back to himself and safe in is bed– or is he? No, of course not. This short horror comic ends with Pepe being sucked into the bed, disappeared forever. Or… is… he…? No, maybe, because in this comic, Furie finally gets real about this whole thing.
Pissing Pepe was fine, I guess. He pulled off his Trump mask and pissed on it. A juvenile expression of disapproval that aimed to turn those Trump memes back on themselves. It’s a riff on pissing Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes (itself an unauthorized use of a mostly wholesome, sometimes dark cartoon character.) But it’s a little hollow, isn’t it? A little bereft of the personal-political that makes a political cartooning work. Like Furie’s comments to WP it’s a too-shruggie response to an election season that has stirred up white supremacists groups and increased attacks against marginalized people across America. What can Furie do about his character being turned into some awful except, like, focus on the positive and also pee? #MakePepeGreatAgainButAlsoKeepHimFunPlease ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The difference between that first Pepe response cartoon and this new strip on The Nib is fathoms wide. Pepe isn’t joking about Trump anymore; he’s being stalked, consumed, stolen. He isn’t grinning about getting his; he’s screaming and crying and losing. It’s not that simple, you see, to take back something that’s been made into a symbol of hate. Of course I want Furie to Take This Seriously. My bias, readers, is that Trump’s movement is a threat to all marginalized people in America and beyond, and that the deplorable people inside the basket and outside of it, vocally and silently supporting, have released and become something monstrous. But this comic is just better. Both because it is more (visceral, emotional) and because it is a more effective political cartoon. It is purposeful, personal, and consumed with terror.
Johnny Depp got eaten by a bed in Nightmare On Elm Street because he was sleeping.
Nancy, though, went into her dreams to pull out Freddy and confront him. That film ends with Nancy Wizard of Ozing her way into denial — it was allllll a dream — and being carried away with her friends in a Freddy car. But she won with us, the audience, a bit, for having fought him.
Matt Furie can’t save Pepe or make him “great again;” not really. Pepe will never be the chill frog he was meant to be. Pepe is bigger than Furie’s vision for him, now. Smaller too, and meaner. But you can’t fight your nightmares until you first invoke them, engage them, and close that reflexive ironic distance. Yes, Trump-frog, Trump-man, is a nightmare.