How Pepe the Frog finalized his transition from goofy meme to an image officially classified by Anti-Defamation League as a symbol of hate is one more strange wrinkle in this dystopian future of a presidential campaign we’re staggering through. Created by California artist Matt Furie in the mid-2000s as part of his independently-published Boy’s Club comics, Pepe was just one of four stoner friends who lived and pranked together.
Years ago the image of Pepe saying, “Feels good man”—originally as a response to his buds asking why he peed with his pants all the way down—was decontextualized and became an internet catch-all response. Over time, new images of Pepe were created by others, particularly on 4chan where the winking challenge became to create “rare Pepes.” Of course, modern humans being modern humans, Pepe was soon depicted in locations like concentration camps and Klu Klux Klans rallies. Then American white supremacists embraced these ironically offensive images unironically, making Pepe one of their favorite avatars, often using images of Pepe as Republican candidate Donald Trump. Recently Trump’s son Donald Jr. and Trump ally Roger Stone posted images of Trump with Pepe, maybe(?) without realizing his new connotations. In September, the Hillary Clinton campaign felt the need to add an explainer to their website about Pepe’s ties to nationalist groups and last week the Anti-Defamation League made their classification.
Amidst all of this, earlier this year, Fantagraphics published a collection of the four Boy’s Club comic books. To find out how the company and Furie felt about Pepe being singled out by the ADL and this bizarre metastization, we spoke with Furie’s editor and long time Fantagraphics employee, Eric Reynolds.
How did wou first become aware of Matt Furie and his work?
Matt published the first issue of Boy’s Club in the early 2000s through a very small press in Portland, so that would have been where I first came across it. Tim Goodyear, who I know through comic circles published the first issue. Then there were a couple of more issues published by my friend and Matt’s friend, the late Alvin Buenaventura. So I was familiar with Matt and his work for several years before we started publishing him.
When did you become aware of the memefication of Pepe?
It’s funny, I only became aware of it shortly before Matt and I agreed to do the Boy’s Club book. I forget what year the fourth and final issue of Boy’s Club came out, but I had read it and hadn’t really seen too much of Matt’s comics after that. It was only when I started talking to him about the book that I became more aware of the broader Pepe-as-meme stuff that was going on, which was really interesting, but not necessarily terribly germane to us publishing the collection of the work.
So that wasn’t what drew you to publishing it?
It was more just this bizarro thing going off to the side that didn’t really have too much bearing on the book.
Do you have much awareness or interest in meme culture?
No, I don’t, not as an active interest, but I was sort of aware of it with this sort of bemused distance.
At this point had it taken on this turn where Pepe was being used in hate imagery?
At that point, the funny thing about it was seeing that Beyoncé had worn a shirt with Pepe on it at a concert—just funny, weird little pop culture cameos here and there. I didn’t know anything about the darker corners of Pepe fandom until the election, all the bullshit that’s blown up over the last few weeks.
Yeah, let’s talk about that bullshit. As his editor and as part of the company that publishes him, how do you even react or respond when something that one of your has created is now being called a symbol of hate through ultimately no actions of his own?
At first I was watching it from a distance and not necessarily feeling like we had to do anything or should do anything. When it really first started to take a more disturbing turn, in my mind, was first when Hillary Clinton’s website had an explanation about Pepe being associated with white supremacists and there was no mention of the fact that, actually, he was this sort of innocent creation of this innocent cartoonist in Southern California who has had absolutely nothing to do with his character being associated with these groups. I’m a Hillary supporter and it sort of bummed me out that there was this only half-truth to the story.
But then the really disturbing turn was when the Anti-Defamation League felt the need to categorize Pepe in this way, and in their defense, they perfectly did their due diligence in terms of identifying Pepe as the creation of Matt and as this character that took on a life of its own, completely irrespective of Matt’s desires or wishes and didn’t reflect on him personally. But still, it’s just creepy. It’s definitely disturbing and it’s also just really frustrating to see the Trump family being heavily responsible for all this. I don’t know, the whole thing is very, very, fucking weird.
Did you guys reach out at all to the Clinton campaign or to the Anti-Defamation League about this?
Yeah, we actually have reached out to the ADL, and they’re very sympathetic to any sort of collateral fallout that reflects on Matt. They’re just doing their job. It’s their job to archive this stuff and categorize this stuff, and that’s what they do. So they’re behaving perfectly responsibly and I think that they do appreciate the fact there is a human being behind all this who is anything but a racist or a hate monger in any way. You can’t help but have a compassion for somebody like that, and I think they do.
But you guys didn’t have any contact with the Clinton campaign?
No, that seemed rather futile. They’re against the fight of their life. Really I thought this would blow over and I agreed with Matt. Matt’s done several interviews where he just said, like, “Yeah, this too shall pass. These groups will find other symbols and move on.” But I think both of us have been probably a little more circumspect about it over the last few days.
Are you guys thinking about this and dealing with this a lot now. Or is this just this strange hum that’s constantly in the background?
At first it was just this weird hum in the background, even when the mention on the Hillary Clinton campaign website happened. But since the ADL news came out, it’s been really omnipresent. It’s been a very, very hot topic and something we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and discussing here internally, and with Matt, and even with some legal counsel just seeing what are our options. What should we do here? Should we do anything? Should Matt do anything? My only real interest is in defending Matt because I don’t think that anyone is necessarily associating him with those groups, but the more it’s in the news, the more you just wonder if some narrative will take hold before anyone has a chance to counterbalance it with the truth.
I’m sure for any artist having your work misappropriated or twisted into something is very disturbing and upsetting, especially something as fairly benign as Pepe.
Yeah, that’s true. It’s kind of an existential thing, even before it’s appropriated by people that you fundamentally see yourself completely opposite to. [Furie’s] been dealing with the fact that Pepe has taken on this greater life in internet culture for years and I think that in and of itself is sort of something to wrestle with as an artist, let alone dropping this atom bomb on top of it of suddenly making it a symbol of white supremacy.
Do you have any understanding or idea of why Pepe was appropriated as a symbol of white supremacy, or is it just so ridiculous that there is no explanation?
I sort of have my head wrapped around how Pepe as memes started on 4chan or Reddit or whatnot. Even that doesn’t completely make sense to me, but I can kind of understand it. Where it took this turn, I really don’t quite understand it. I’ve read some explanations of it, but that is the part I can’t grasp. There’s nothing inherently about Pepe that would lend the character to those groups at all. His name’s fucking Pepe. He’s a chill stoner frog. I don’t get it at all.
Has this impacted the book at all?
It has sold copies of the book, yeah. Why and how, I’m not entirely sure, but I’d like to think some people are buying it and maybe the book’s kind of rehabilitating Pepe’s image.
Of all the guys in the Boy’s Club, who is your favorite?
Probably Landwolf. He skateboards naked.
Hopefully he can be appropriated for peace and equality.
There you go.