Pepe the Frog is dead, according to his creator, artist Matt Furie, who over the weekend published a comic strip showing the character laid out in an open casket. But Pepe’s death is only a symbolic one, as the far-right and white supremacists who appropriated him will no doubt continue to use the character to spread racist and anti-Semitic messages online.
Pepe, a twentysomething “chill frog-dude,” created over a decade ago by Furie, went from being one of the most popular memes about a stoned frog on the internet to being designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League — and now he is dead.
In a single-page strip for independent publisher Fantagraphics’ Free Comic Book Day, Pepe is seen being mourned by Landwolf, Brett, and Andy – his friends from the original Boy’s Club cartoon.
But this is unlikely to be the end for Pepe. The character became a symbol used by the alt-right in the lead-up to the U.S. election in 2016, and while Furie’s decision may be understandable, it is also entirely futile.
“If I had a creation of mine used in that way, I’d be doing the same, [but] for the broader politics, though, I don’t think it will matter at all,” Angela Nagle, author of the upcoming book on alt-right culture “Kill All Normies,” told VICE News.
Pepe, the cartoon amphibian, was first introduced by artist Matt Furie in 2005 in his comic strip Boy’s Club, which he posted to his Myspace page. The character was co-opted by the users of 4Chan and Reddit for the next decade before hitting the mainstream in 2015, when teenagers shared Pepe’s likeness so many times he became the biggest meme on Tumblr.
But towards the end of 2015, Pepe morphed from a big friendly frog into something much more sinister. According to one account, the motivation behind Pepe’s transformation was a desire “to reclaim Pepe from normies.”
The campaign was orchestrated on the notorious /r9k/ board on 4Chan where members “mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda.” The next move was to associate the imagery with Donald Trump – an effort so successful that Trump himself shared one of the images with his millions of Twitter followers.
Last year, after the Anti-Defamation League designated Pepe a hate symbol, Furie launched a campaign to reclaim the cartoon frog. “It’s completely insane that Pepe has been labeled a symbol of hate,” he wrote in an essay for Time magazine. “It’s a nightmare, and the only thing I can do is see this as an opportunity to speak out against hate.”
Despite Furie’s best efforts, that campaign failed and Pepe continues to be used as a symbol of hate. Nagle argues that the “alt-lite” — a group of anti-PC, pro-free speech, cultural libertarians epitomized by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos — use the symbol in a jokey or ironic way, but are in fact serving as “useful idiots” to the more politically serious alt-right.
“The alt-lite is not itself far-right,” Nagle said. “It’s mostly liberal with an anti-PC aesthetic and doesn’t really have any big ideas. The alt-right does. But the alt-lite is unwittingly helping them by making it harder for people to interpret them directly.”
The author adds that individuals using the Pepe the Frog meme can quickly find themselves moving into a more extreme form of politics. “The alt-lite have been a bridge for a lot of people into extremely far-right reactionary politics, who started out just trolling and being ironic and in-jokey, thinking anyone who said they were fascists was just a PC libtard,” Nagle said. “Well, you can’t laugh at people for thinking you’re a white segregationist anymore when you have literally become a white segregationist.”