Pepe the Frog burst onto the internet in 2005 when artist Matt Furie created the free spirited frog and uploaded him to Myspace. He had no idea what his work would inspire. Feels Good Man is an unreleased documentary about Furie, who hasn’t talked much about the subject since 2016, and Pepe’s journey. It doesn’t always feel good, but the documentary reveals how internet culture is changing the world, for better and worse.
Pepe the Frog’s story is a strange one. The cartoon frog is officially listed as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), lauded as an avatar of the Chaos god Kek, the star of an Islamaphobic children’s book, the center of a lawsuit with conspiracist Alex Jones, and a symbol of Hong Kong’s protest movement.
Feels Good Man’s most impressive feat is that it weaves together these disparate narratives concisely. The movie orbits Furie, Pepe’s creator, and intersperses news coverage of events surrounding the frog with original animation depicting important moments.
Pepe was always an extremely online frog, but the real trouble started when he pulled his pants all the way down to take a piss.
“I remember when I was in second grade and I went to the bathroom alongside my cousin David,” Furie said in the film. “He pulled his pants all the way down to go pee. Underwear and everything. Seems like it would feel really good.”
The now iconic comic depicted a happy Pepe, pants and underwear around his ankles, going to the bathroom. In a later panel, he explains why he did it. “Feels good man,” he says with a happy grin. That single panel spread online, starting in body builder forums before reaching the internet's farthest and darkest reaches.
Animator Arthur Jones, a friend of Furie, directed the documentary and had unprecedented access to both the artist and his friends. It’s this view into Furie’s life and his social circle that’s the real draw of the film. This is a story not just of the cartoon frog but of its creator’s relationship and reaction to that journey.
A group of Furie’s friends got Pepe tattoos on their upper arms long before 2016 . It’s his face, post-piss, saying “feels good man.” Years later, as the meme spread and online Nazis co-opted it, they came to regret the tattoo. Even early on, some of Furie’s friends were apprehensive about Pepe’s popularity and urged Furie to take control. One encouraged him to sue.
“I’m an artist,” Furie said in the documentary. “I don’t like suing other artists.”
But things got out of hand and Furie, who only had nominal control to begin with, lost it completely. Pepe the Frog became a favorite symbol of 4chan and other dark parts of the internet. Soon shitposters were releasing pictures depicting the cartoon frog in Nazi regalia. He became a symbol of the far right. Self-described Chaos Magicians invoked Pepe in rituals they promised would elevate Trump in the 2016 election.
Feels Good Man interviews a wide swath of people about their interaction with Pepe, including vocal 4channers. It’s Furie’s journey, but the documentary reveals how a simple cartoon drawing can become a symbol beyond the intentions of its creator. Pepe became all things to all people—the ultimate shitpost for some and the ultimate symbol of hope for others.
Its strangest character is Peter Kell, a cryptocurrency trader who claims he’s made a lot of money trading a Pepe-themed cryptocurrency.
“Owning a rare Pepe [uncommon images of Pepe, turned into digital trading cards, ostensibly worth thousands of dollars, and traded online] is about being Alpha. It’s about having a dank, rare, Pepes nobody else has and it’s about ‘How do we get to the moon in a Lambo,” Kell said while leaning against a Lamborghini. When he leaves the scene, he’s blasting a song about trading rare Pepes set to the tune of the Pokémon theme song.
Through it all is Furie, taking things in stride, talking about the depression caused by his whimsical frog becoming a hate symbol and battling Pepe’s appropriators online and through legal action. “If you want to escape hell, you can’t ignore it. You have to go to the center of it,” Furie said.
To get to the center, Furie is suing anyone who tries to make money from Pepe, encouraging people to draw Pepe in his original context, and lobbying the ADL to remove Pepe from its hate symbol list.
In a scene towards the end, Furie meets with Oren Segal, the ADL’s Vice President of the Center on Extremism.
“Having it on the hate symbol database, we’ve found, has been extremely useful for those who are trying to understand this barrage of symbols...it’s complicated,” Segal told Furie.
“This is gonna be a lifelong journey for me,” Furie responds. “I’m going to be entangled with this character forever.”
“But what would be the impact of removing it?” Segal said. “Most of these people are creating these images and they’re going to keep churning these things out. Your bottom line request is really not going to solve the issue.”
Furie’s journey reflects the cost of creating a truly iconic piece of art. He gave Pepe to the world and, unfortunately, he can’t get him back.
“What’s more worthless than a cartoon,” Dale Beran, author of It Came From Something Awful, said in the documentary. “But what’s more powerful than Mickey Mouse.”