Thursday, 11 May 2017

Pepe the Frog is dead

Rest in peace, Pepe the Frog, a character I knew barely anything about.

Our story begins in 2005, a bizarre lost time when Myspace was a thing. And it was on that ancient parchment that an American cartoonist called Matt Furie first published a strip created in Microsoft Paint called Playtime, Furie developed the strip and refined it into a webcomic with the name Boy's Club.
It's a humour strip about four flat-sharing anthropomorphic animals. I can best describe it as stoner humour. The type of jokes you'd get on an Adult Swim cartoon of the same period. 12oz Mouse, say or Assie McGee.
Anyway, Pepe sort-of becomes the breakout character.
In particular there was one strip with Pepe piddling with his pants down that caught fire.
That "Feels good man" was the image of Pedro that took on a life of its own after being shared on certain websites. Myspace, Gaia Online and in particular (drum roll) 4chan. The original being obscure enough he soon gained the name "Feel Good Frog" for easy identification.

Many users started putting Pepe in posts to suggest mood and he very quickly became a (dramatic chord) MEME!
Sure enough there came variants on the meme such as a variant with the mouth inverted to be... Feels Bad Frog.
From there Pepe was put into all kinds of scenarios and moods to suit the posters' whims. Soon, Feels Good and Feels Bad were joined by other variants, including Angry Pepe, Sad Frog, Smug Frog and Well Meme'd.

Webcomics have been particularly susceptible to being twisted and "meme'd" in this way. Obviously. it's much easier to share images posted online to other sources and when one hits with the zeitgeist it can catch fire. Sometimes literally as with the This is Fine Dog.
This image from KC Green's Gunshow (also the origin of Dickbutt) became widely shared from 2014 onwards because it fitted in with a feeling of general malaise in Western society. Something was deeply wrong and we were all pretending it wasn't. Here's the full strip for context.
There came a point, however, when Pepe was co-opted by those with a more sinister agenda.
As the image became more popular, being used by such figures as Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry, so the need to subvert it further grew.

4chan users started selling "rare" Pepe images, highlighting the absurdity of calling any art "rare" in the internet age.

Then in September 2016 the world's media noticed how Pepe had become a symbol of the then-new wave of political activist we'd come to know as the alt-right.
Trump supporters started using it, especially after a 4chan user called Sean Lewandowski was ejected from a Hillary Clinton rally after shouting "Pepe!" during a pause in her speech after mentioning the alt-right (he also managed to namecheck before being removed).

Clinton's own website posted a piece that called Pepe "a symbol associated with white supremacy" and after Hillary herself called the alt-right a "basket of deplorables" this image appeared: 
Using the poster from The Expendables, its intention was to make various figures associated with the alt-right look like heroes. There you can see the Trump-ified version of Pepe as well as Donald Trump Jr who was so chuffed to be included he posted it on his Instagram.
The Anti-Defamation League categorised Pepe as a hate symbol and he was suddenly everywhere. 

Pepe's creator, Furie, has not been terribly impressed by this turn of events. A character from an apolitical humour strip becoming something akin to a swastika is not what he wanted.

Last Saturday was Free Comic Book Day (the most wonderful time of the year) and among the pile I collected from my friendly neighbourhood comics shop (honestly, I remember when there were four comics available at this thing, now there are too many to carry) was Fantagraphics' World's Greatest Cartoonists.
I was delighted to see this. Fantagraphics are pioneers of comics and cartoons as art. As well as curating classic cartoons in the perfect form (their Peanuts collections are among the favourite things I own) the continue to publish works by today's best artists. I picked this up being delighted by the promise of a strip by Jason as well as reading other strips by creators I didn't yet know. 

It seems all the work in this one-off comic was commissioned especially for Free Comic Book Day and featured a delightful range of styles. 

Then came to single page by Matt Furie. It seems the best way to fight the growing monster of Pepe was to kill him off in no uncertain terms. Here, presented in full is the Boy's Club wake for Pepe. 
And that's it. No more Pepe.

In the commentary at the end of the book Furie says: "Boy's Club is about friendship. We are all going to die so remember to treat your friends nicely and give them lots of hugs."

Amen to that.

RIP Pepe 2005-2017

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