27 October 2020 02:47
The Matt Furie you see in the documentary is an increasingly strained man; it's almost as though he didn't realise how bad things had got. The pain of having Pepe included in the Anti-Defamation League's dictionary of hate symbols is written all over his drawn face. "Something about that movie that struck me was how emotional I am," he says now. "I didn't realise how emotional I was until I saw the movie." When he begins legal proceedings against Alex Jones, head of InfoWars and alt-Right big wig, for selling a poster with Pepe alongside other Right-wing figures (Milo Yiannopoulos, Kellyanne Conway), his answers are clipped and he seems like a man fighting to stay calm. Jones, by contrast, is all bluster and indignation: he eventually settled out of court for $2 million.
There were times, Furie says, where he wanted to stop drawing altogether. He was mercilessly trolled for a sweet but misguided hashtag campaign to #SavePepe, where he invited people to create their own happy frogs. "It was more kind of therapeutic for me to... you know, I didn't really know what to do in the situation," he says. "But also it set it up to be trolled pretty easily.
Even while I was doing it, I was talking with my wife, Aiyana, and she's kind of cringing, like, this is not gonna do anything. It's not gonna work. But I don't know. It was better for me to do that than to just be angry – that's how I dealt with it." Eventually he tried killing Pepe: but even that proved yet more fodder to the trolls. "We kept the making of the film extremely quiet," says director Arthur Jones, who approached Furie about making the documentary (Jones's debut) when Pepe became a hate symbol in 2016. Furie says he wasn't bothered by some of the threats he received (including an image of him having his head cut off) but I don't quite believe him. "We definitely did not broadcast that we're making the Pepe the Frog film... we wanted to avoid any potential negativity, because I think this was a story that both people on the left and people on the right would assume that either we would get wrong, or maybe they didn't need to be told." They'd expected it to be difficult to get someone from 4chan to talk, and someone from Trump's digital team, but in fact it was the experts in the field of online trolling who were the most reticent to go on camera. The reaction has been largely heart-warming; Jones, Furie and Angelini are all glowing as they show me new Pepes that people have sent them from all over the world. MATT FURIE is studying a frog. He has been keen on the amphibians since he was a child, he says, and over the years has drawn a series of them for his comics. The camera cuts to him at a desk, sketching his most famous—or indeed infamous—creation, Pepe the Frog. "Feels Good Man", a new documentary, tells the story of how Mr Furie's character became a meme beloved by the alt-right. Pepe was originally created in 2005 as part of "Boys Club", a comic strip based on Mr Furie and his stoner college friends: the half-animal, half-man creatures would hang out, get high and partake in some innocent shenanigans. (The documentary's title was Pepe's catchphrase, a reference to his enjoyment of urinating with his shorts around his ankles.) Mr Furie uploaded scans of the comics to Myspace, an early social-networking site, and strangers enjoyed the simple jokes and familiar archetypes. From there, Pepe started to spread, appearing first on bodybuilding forums, then on the message boards of Reddit, 8chan and 4chan. Thanks to his features—bulging eyes that conveyed a kind of sadness, a downturned, impish mouth—Pepe was embraced as a patron saint of the weird and the unlovable. But before long bigoted users of 4chan, in particular, started to photoshop him into offensive imagery (under an Islamic State flag, for example, or wearing a swastika). This was to discourage "normies", women or people of colour from feeling as though they could connect to Pepe, too. In the documentary Matt Braynard, a former strategist for Donald Trump, says that Pepe became a kind of dog-whistle thanks to his growing association with the alt-right. To anyone who did not spend a lot of time online, the image of a cartoon frog seemed harmless enough; for those in the know, Pepe became a way to symbolise affinity with a malevolent movement. Images of Pepe were retweeted by Mr Trump in 2015 as well as by David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. At first, Mr Furie is unperturbed by Pepe's presence in the darker corners of the internet, telling Adam Serwer, a writer at the Atlantic, in 2016 that it is "a phase". Shortly afterwards, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) labels Pepe a hate symbol; Mr Furie then tries to wrest back ownership of the image. He collaborates with the ADL on a futile #SavePepe campaign to make the frog "an image of love". He begins enforcing his copyright and takes Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, a conspiracist website, to court. (Mr Furie won a settlement of $15,000, some of which he donated to a frog conservation charity.) In 2017 the artist "killed" his creation, depicting the frog in a casket. These efforts proved hopeless, however, as internet users created even more grotesque pictures, such as Pepe decapitating his former self. The documentary, directed by Arthur Jones, an artist and friend of Mr Furie's, combines footage and interviews with hallucinatory animations. The film covers a lot of terrain in 92 minutes in a clever and propulsive way, as observations from journalists, sociologists and even experts on the occult are intercut with chilling real events. (In 2014 Pepe was photoshopped into a car with Elliot Rodger, an "incel" who murdered five women, minutes after the news of his killing spree broke.) One of the documentary's most poignant scenes shows Mr Furie meeting with a group of researchers in 2018, who tell him that Pepe is a "gateway meme" or "entry point to radicalisation" on the web. Throughout the presentation, Mr Furie is attentive but visibly distressed. One of the academics asks him whether he feels any personal responsibility for the evolution of Pepe's image, and Mr Furie admits that he could have been more proactive. Yet "Feels Good Man" is a reminder that, particularly in the internet age, artists cannot control the afterlife of their work. "Feels Good Man" is streaming on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video. It airs on the BBC on October 26th