The internet can often feel like a pack of Mentos dropped into a 2-liter of Diet Coke: Once you've made something explosive happen, it's going to get everywhere—no matter how much you want to contain it. Matt Furie learned this the hard way, seeing the object of his creation blow up and become an emblem for hate as a result of the deep, unbridled machinations of the internet.
Feels Good Man, a new documentary by Arthur Jones, is ostensibly about Furie's comic character Pepe the Frog. But the tale of Pepe's descent from funny, lighthearted punk cartoon to a hateful symbol of the far right—and Furie's journey to save his creation from the hands of evil—is ultimately an illustration of how we can lose control of what we forge, especially on social media.
In 2005, Furie, a San Francisco-based illustrator and cartoonist, concocted a funny looking frog named Pepe using Microsoft Paint, and shared a comic he had made with the character on MySpace. It was the genesis of Boy's Club, his comic featuring Pepe the Frog and his uber chill, pizza-loving pack of pals, all of whom were reflections of their creator. At some point, a Pepe comic ended up on 4chan, the notorious anonymous message board often attributed with the global spread of radical white supremacist beliefs. As users reposted and replicated Pepe in endless permutations on boards across the internet, the character fell into the wrong hands—specifically those of the extremely online sector of the alt right, which used Pepe to spread racist ideologies and helped troll the political landscape into a Trump presidency.
"It is crazy to think about how many different platforms Pepe has basically outlasted," Jones, who is making his directorial debut with the film, told VICE. "It's amazing that Pepe keeps having this sort of nine lives, and that seems very unique to the Internet, and certainly very unique to memes."
The documentary, available now on demand, delves into the lack of containment that occurs when an image ends up overtaken by the online masses, and what happens when that network uses it to spread white supremacy ideals across the web and inevitably into the world. In Feels Good Man, the soft-spoken and palpably chill Furie says that he initially had no desire to quell any use of the image on the internet. Even as he saw people online use Pepe's catchphrase "feels good man" as captions on their photos, create original songs about the amphibian, and draw their own Pepes for memes, Furie didn't think to deliver a cease or desist.
"Man, I'm like an artist," Furie says in the documentary. "So I don't like suing other artists… I was, like, kind of interested in it as an internet phenomenon, but I didn't think too much about it." He admits to not even knowing what a meme was when Pepe took off.
That well-meaning and extremely mellow outlook ended up coming back to haunt him as Pepe made his way to 4chan, where provocateurs celebrate being overtly offensive with replies that push posts to the top and have a frightening way of creating a groundswell. (In the doc, Jones asks Furie what people get wrong about drawing the now infamous frog, and he responds, "Probably when they put Pepe on the internet saying, like, 'Kill Jews.'") In seeing Pepe the Frog spiral into darkness, Furie felt compelled to leave behind the mellowness and fight back against the likes of Alex Jones, Richard Spencer, and the alt right as a whole. The documentary aims to set the story straight about Pepe's derailment as a character, although there have previously been countless interviews and pieces on the rise of Pepe the Frog as a hate figure, including on VICE.
Where Feels Good Man really shines, and sheds deeper light into the human aspects of this strange and chaotic phenomenon, is in its exploration of how Furie has to contend with his legacy as the creator of what became a monster. The co-opting of Pepe's image has impacted not just Furie, but our entire social and political system. The film also strives for a broader understanding of how images of any character, from Garfield to Mickey Mouse, can be uncontrollably appropriated into acid-washed, hate-mongering versions of their intended selves. A quick Google search can produce, say, your favorite cartoon sponge saying and doing all manner of unnerving things. "We have a hard drive of four terabytes of Pepes that we've all catalogued in there," Jones told VICE. "There are plenty of X-rated Pepes out there."
Memes always seem to find new and interesting ways to shapeshift through popular culture. Earlier this year, I wrote about the meme Wood Sitting on a Bed and how COVID-19 pandemic bait-and-switch links—in which someone sends you a link to what appears to be a news story about COVID-19, only to reveal a photo of a naked, beefy Black man with an enormous penis—gave the meme a new life force online. It became impossible to contain or control the spread of the image, and the family of Wardy "Wood" Joubert III, the person pictured in the meme, were inevitably impacted by its popularity. The meme's ubiquity brought them ongoing pain and grief, as Joubert died in 2016 and was unable to defend himself or to reap the benefits of his online infamy.
Jones, as a friend of Furie's, feels that pang of loss when it comes to Pepe's misappropriation. "When I started [making the film] in 2015, when he was really sort of becoming like a more toxic meme, I would feel like Oh, he's lost. I felt this palpable sense of like, Oh, no, he's like the prodigal son lost."
That pain and concern, and especially exhaustion, is evident in Furie in the film. He simply drew a little comic to share with friends and people online, and had no intentions of living anything other than a quiet life as an illustrator in the Bay Area. It's impossible not to feel for him, especially as he himself tries to rescue his character from the grasp of the alt right. At one point, he even kills off Pepe in his own work, but that doesn't solve the problem. It's in fighting back—and winning in court against Infowars host Alex Jones and white supremacist news site The Daily Stormer, who was selling Pepe merchandise on his website—that he gains back some of the control he's lost and could positively affect the internet meme landscape. It's a small but important triumph, and proof that Furie still holds his froggy friend close to his heart.
"Matt still is dealing with this everyday," said Jones. "I think he feels kind of differently about it. There's a part of him that sometimes wants to just pretend like this didn't happen, and then other times I think he feels really proud of the character. As we've talked about the film, I can tell there's still parts of the film that still have a visceral hurt for Matt."
A nicer, gentler Pepe has gained a new life on Twitch and TikTok as a reaction meme, just as he had been in his early days. Furie's legacy will always be tied to Pepe the Frog, and unfortunately, now to the alt right. "I think one of the reasons to do this film was to let the film speak for Matt," Jones said.
Now, it's just a matter of seeing how Pepe has and will continue to evolve, just as his creator has. And Feels Good Man gives viewers hope that maybe it's not too late for the chill green dude.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.