The Creator of Pepe the Frog Talks About Making Comics in the Post-Meme World
"I've made my mark on the internet, so I can relax. I'm retired now, living off all the shares and likes."
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Long before 4Chan and Reddit made him an internet icon and the likes of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj blasted his mug to the masses, the emotionally expressive amphibian meme known as Pepe the Frog was the work of a single man. After unveiling him on MySpace in 2005, artist Matt Furie officially debuted the character in the following year's Boy's Club #1, a collection of single-page comics chronicling the adventures of an anthropomorphic quartet of funny-animal stoners. (Two examples of Boy's Club comics he drew for VICE can be found here.) An answer to the "What if the Muppets vaped?" question that you were too afraid to ask, the series simultaneously satirized and celebrated the lifestyle of 20-something bros, capturing their lives full of junk food, catchphrases, and bodily fluids with horrifying and hilarious accuracy. But like all things of beauty, Boy's Club was fleeting: Its fourth and final issue came out in 2010, and it's been years since a new stand-alone strip surfaced.
But like Frankenstein's monster, Pepe outgrew his creator. A strip in which the frogman peed with his pants around his ankles—"Feels good man" was his hedonistic rationale—took off among users of 4Chan, who started remixing both the phrase and the face in 2008. Over time, as people redrew Pepe to look sad or smug and attached his face to literally thousands of different scenarios, the character left the catchphrase behind and achieved LOLcat levels of ubiquity, while the self-parodying search for "rare Pepes" invited ever more bizarre modifications of the meme.
Late last week, the artist quietly posted a new Boy's Club comic to his Tumblr—the first the world has seen since we reached peak Pepe. And he started off with a bang: It's Pepe, jerking off. Is this semen-soaked strip—surrounded by genuinely rare Boy's Club comics Furie made for The Believer, previously unavailable online—the start of a new burst of inspiration from the guy who planted the seed for it all?
VICE talked to Furie about returning to the frog who made him internet famous, the inspiration he's drawn from the character's myriad memes, and how no matter how gross he gets, Pepe is for the children.
VICE: When was the last time you'd drawn Boy's Club comics before the last week?
Matt Furie: Three years ago? It's been a while. The Believer had a comics section, and I did that for a year or so; a lot of the ones that I posted last week were from there. I just dug up black-and-white versions from my archives, because in The Believer they were in color, and posted them. The one new one that I've done—and I hope to continue my streak—is this one of Pepe, uh, eventually... how can I say this... having a sexual eruption at the end of it. Or perhaps applying sunscreen. It's kind of left to the imagination.
Could be a ketchup bottle mishap.
Indeed. But coincidentally that was based on a little drawing that I found online of Pepe that I thought was hilarious. I looked up Pepe on Facebook the other day, and this fan page's wallpaper was a really funny collage of all these Pepes. One of them was eating a fly, one of them was gonna shoot himself in the head, one of them was ejaculating on his face, but they were all so charming, and they looked like they were done by little kids. So I did a four-panel gag to kind of just get it started again. God willing, I'll do more. Maybe I'll make the next one based on that whole weird batch of Pepes. I feel I should exploit the internet popularity. Hopefully I will.
How long ago did you start to notice that he'd started to take on this life of his own?
I first noticed that there was a "feels good man" phenomenon a while ago. That became an internet phrase. I noticed it a lot, for some reason, on websites about working out. It'd be all these buff dudes who would write the hashtag "#feelsgoodman" when they were, like, flexing their abs or something, or chicks doing a front view and a side view. I thought that was interesting. It started off as a way to comment on random message boards and graduated into the fitness world.
Which is so far away from the Boy's Club milieu.
[Laughs] Yeah, totally. I'm not really big on working out. I don't think any of those characters are really big on working out either. But it just translated. There's something weird about the culture of getting buff, the culture of exercise — a weird masturbatory element to it. You're in there, by yourself, pumping iron. There's some similarity, some link there.
Boy's Club is definitely about indulgence.
Yeah. I think working out is also kind of an indulgent thing because you don't need to do it. I don't necessarily think it's that great to your body to be that hard on your body, you know?
So the initial wave was "Feels Good Man"–related, but as time passed that phrase and Pepe's face were separated further, and now there's just all kinds of Pepes out there.
The thing I like most about it is how janky these drawings are. It's cool. It seems like little kids are using MS Paint to do it or something. I'm actually kind of charmed by the quality of the linework. [Laughs] One of the neatest things that's happened recently is that my cousin has a daughter, who's maybe 12 or 13. She has a volleyball team, and she texted me the other day and said "You created Pepe, right?" I'm like "yeah." And she's like "Well, the team we're playing is Team Pepe, and they have that frog as their mascot." She lives in suburban Ohio. It's just cool that it translates to kids. There's all this perverted stuff, but there's also an innocence to it, too.
You don't feel weird about it being completely removed from its original context in your comics?
I don't really see it as being something that's negative. It's this almost post-capitalist kind of success. I'm not making any money off of it, but it's become its own thing in internet culture. Now, at least, a lot of people make a conscious effort to go out and try and create that kind of meme success, where you're doing these little one-off characters, little gags, little gifs, and that's definitely your intention. I'm just flattered by it. I don't really care. I think it's cool. In fact, I'm getting kind of inspired by all the weird interpretations of it. I wanna use it to my own advantage and try to come up with comics based on other people's interpretations of it.
But there are two things I don't like about it. One, he's mixed in with this weird white guy who he's always hugging, which I don't understand. Have you seen that white character? With the weird face?
Feels Guy, that's his name.
Yeah. I mean, why are they linked together? Is it because he's called the Feels Guy and the frog is the Feels Good Frog? It's got its own logic, you know what I mean? The kids know what it is, but I don't.
Two, he's got, randomly, a blue shirt and brown lips, and that's his accepted outfit now. Those are the two things that kind of piss me off about it. Other than that, I don't really care.
My lady thinks that Pepe's a self-portrait, in a way.
Comics have a history of characters being expropriated from their original creators—
Like Calvin pissing, and how the Robert Crumb "Keep On Truckin'" took on a life of its own?
I actually meant how, say, Jack Kirby never got his fair share from Marvel, or DC screwing Siegel & Shuster on Superman, but your comparison's more direct. It's not like there's some megacorporation that spent a billion dollars to buy Calvin Pissing Entertainment.
It's like a decentralized folk art, with people taking it, doing their own thing with it, and then capitalizing on it using bumper stickers or t-shirts. That's happening to me too. There is a tradition of it.
On Motherboard: 4Chan's Frog Meme Went Mainstream, So They Tried to Kill It
But your main complaints are just a couple of specific aesthetic things, and not a principled objection to art being used by people other than the original artist.
No, because I do art outside of Boy's Club, and I reference Terminator or Ronald McDonald or other pop-cultural stuff that I didn't come up with. If I see someone selling something on Etsy, like a Pepe pin or something, I just ask them to send me some. I have a little collection of bootleg Pepe stuff, some t-shirts and a necklace and an earring and some pins and things like that.
You've done a children's book, you have a fine art career, you're getting involved in animation. Does Pepe get you in the door anywhere?
[Laughs] Not in the case of animation, no. I dunno, it might? I've met some cartoonists that are familiar. A lot of people know my work through Pepe, because there are ways to trace it back to me. "Oh, what do you do?" "Well, have you seen that frog guy online?" That's what people are most familiar with.
Is it hard to recapture that dirtbag mindset of Boy's Club after all these years?
It is, kind of, but there's a way to exist in that zone indefinitely. Not that I'm as prolific as the Charlie Brown guy or whatever, but he had to stay in that childhood world of interconnected friends and remember what that was like. This might even be easier, because it's a little bit closer to adulthood than childhood is. It's kind of in between childhood and adulthood, you know? I think you can still tap into it, but we'll see. I'll try a few to see if I've still got it. Time will tell. I have a kid now—a little girl, she just turned two months old—so things are a little different. I'm in that zone now, so maybe I'll draw some baby gags in there.
Babies and the Boy's Club dudes have a lot in common, in terms of being adorable but also disgusting.
Maybe that's where I'll draw my inspiration from: all those bodily horrors of babyhood.
Have you ever thought about collecting all the Boy's Club comics in a single book?
I've thought about it. I dunno. The problem with books is I usually end up getting not that great of a deal. If the right situation came along I'd do it, but it's really not even... I mean, I guess it would be worth it, to have it be easier for fans. But I kind of like it not being easy for people to get. I dunno, it's kind of funny to see it on eBay for $400 or something. My lady thinks that Pepe's a self-portrait, in a way—she says I have Pepe's eyes—so it's kind of neat to see something that's so personal to me on some level infiltrate this weird nether-region of the internet. I've made my mark on the internet, so I can relax. I'm retired now, living off all the shares and likes.
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