Pepe the Frog is kicking back to life.
Two months ago, fans mourned the gentle if juvenile comic book character after artist Matt Furie portrayed the amphibian in a casket. The one-page strip followed an eight-month effort to reclaim Pepe from white supremacists who had hijacked his image to promote hate online.
Now, Furie wants to bring the pot-and-pizza-loving slacker back to life with a Kickstarter campaign that will reclaim “his status as a universal symbol for peace, love, and acceptance.” The campaign, which started on June 26, has already surpassed its $10,000 goal.
The Kickstarter appeal marks the latest twist in Pepe’s improbable evolution from stoner zine star to online hate emblem. The transformation, which at one point saw a civil rights group formally designate Pepe a hate symbol, underscores how difficult it is for artists to maintain control of their creations after they’re on the web.
“There’s something about interacting with a screen rather than actual humans in a room that’s really dehumanizing,” Furie said in an interview. “There is something about the anonymity of the internet that gives people the ability to express these darker interests.”
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign, Pepe became closely associated with the “alt-right,” a loosely knit movement of white nationalists and neo-Nazis who used the character to promote racism and anti-Semitism. As the movement grew more active online, Pepe was repurposed as a KKK member, a Nazi stormtrooper and, eventually, Adolf Hitler. At one point, Pepe’s catchphrase, “Feels good man,” was recast as “Kill Jews man.”
Furie, who says he lost licensing deals as the brouhaha over Pepe rose, is working with a lawyer to protect the character after he re-debuts. Still, he wants fans to feel connected to his art and doesn’t object to them modifying his work as long as it isn’t for hateful purposes.
“I’m not trying to limit anybody’s creativity and self-expression online,” he said.
Furie isn’t the only artist who has seen his work taken over online. Drawings by Ben Garrison, a political cartoonist, were doctored with anti-Semitic images to paint him as a neo-Nazi sympathizer. Google searches for Garrison would return the repurposed cartoons because his name had been left on the offensive versions. He’s been called “the internet’s most trolled cartoonist.”
Pepe was born in 2005 as a character in a zine called “Playtime,” which Furie designed in Microsoft Paint. He later posted some of the comics, which became “Boy’s Club,” to his blog on MySpace.
“Boy’s Club” was far from controversial. The characters, all animals, ate, drank and played video games. The humor skewed toward toilet jokes.
By 2008, fans were posting snippets online. Soon, Pepe memes — wink-and-nudge jokes in the form of images — popped up on 4chan, Reddit, Tumblr and other social media sites. He was sometimes known as the “sad frog.”
Before long, Pepe went mainstream. In 2014, singer Katy Perry tweeted a crying Pepe after landing jet-lagged in Australia. Later, Nicki Minaj posted a twerking Pepe to Instagram.
That prompted a backlash among original fans, who circulated disturbing memes designed to make Pepe less appealing. As the memes got more outlandish, white supremacists and anti-Semites adopted Pepe. It wasn’t long until a swastika-tatted Pepe and a Pepe with nooses began circulating on the internet.
They were only the beginning of Pepe’s life as a political figure.
On Oct. 13, 2015, Donald Trump tweeted a meme of himself as Pepe as he began his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. During the campaign, a Trump adviser and one of the candidate’s sons posted a parody of a movie poster for “The Expendables” that included Pepe bearing a signature Trump combover.
Hillary Clinton’s organization responded with an FAQ explaining Pepe was a symbol of racists. “Pepe’s been almost entirely co-opted by the white supremacists who call themselves the ‘alt-right,'” the article read.
Shortly after, the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to a database of hate symbols, placing the cartoon frog in the company of SS lightning bolts and the Nazi Party flag.
Furie’s editor, Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics Books, said the character’s hijacking had been difficult for the artist, particularly after the ADL added Pepe to its database. Furie, he said, worried his name would always be associated with a hate symbol.
“Matt was deeply, deeply disturbed by it,” Reynolds said.
The ADL says Pepe is an unprecedented addition to its database because unlike other entries the copyright-protected character has a known creator. The ADL initially removed Furie’s name from the entry at his request and re-introduced it after the organization and artist began working to rescue the character with a #SavePepe hashtag campaign. (The hashtag is also being used in the new Kickstarter project.)
Kimberley Motley, Furie’s lawyer, has started an online petition imploring the ADL to remove Pepe from its hate database.
Pepe’s use didn’t end after the election.
In January, the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted a Pepe image after the British prime minister was asked to encourage then President-elect Trump to distance himself from Russia. White nationalist Richard Spencer, who used a frog emoji in his Twitter handle, was punched in the face while explaining the meaning of a Pepe pin to a TV crew shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
In June, Apple banned a game featuring Pepe from its App Store for containing “objectionable content.”
Furie, who was recently named to Time magazine’s list of most influential people on the internet, said he might draw inspiration from the experience and incorporate it into the new comic, which will run about 40 pages and maintain “the spirit of the original ‘Boy’s Club.'”
“These guys make great cartoon villains,” he said of the white nationalists who co-opted Pepe. “They sound like cartoonish evil villains.”
First published July 10, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, July 15 at 4:22 p.m.: Adds mention of petition to remove Pepe from the ADL’s database of hate symbols.
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