Pepe the Frog, a fictional amphibian both beloved and abhorred by Americans of varying political persuasions, has died. Drawn into creation in 2005, he passed away tragically at the hands of his creator, artist Matt Furie, on Saturday.
Birthed in Microsoft Paint, and printed at a local Kinko’s shortly after, he has been described by those who knew him personally as chill, peaceful and often stoned. Yet by his time of death, the “Boy’s Club” zine star was virtually unrecognizable. He’d, unfortunately, become a darling symbol of the alt-right.
Pepe had a happy upbringing. He spent his early 20s ― in frog years, that is ― doing what he loved: chugging pop, snarfing pizza and getting high with his roommates Andy, Brett and Landwolf. Furie gave him a simple life full of simple pleasures, like surfing the web for sick videos and eating so much you barf it all back up. For a few years, at least.
Things got complicated, however, in a seemingly fleeting moment that would prove to be fatal. One day, Pepe’s roommate caught the frog in a compromising position: peeing, with his pants dropped all the way down to his ankles. His entire butt was exposed, for no reason. It was weird. When Landwolf called Pepe out for it, Pepe responded: “Feels good man.” The altercation, memorialized in zine, would forever alter the course of Pepe’s life.
In 2008, a cartoon depicting Pepe’s smarmy “feels good man” smile popped up on the message board 4chan. There was something contagious about Pepe’s indulgent joie de vivre that made internet users share the image again and again and again. It soon went viral, gaining particular traction in, of all places, a bodybuilding forum.
That year, Pepe went from mere image to meme ― a humorous cultural touchstone, that, like a human gene, could mutate and replicate in strange ways. The more popular a meme Pepe became, the more he began to change, adopting alternate personas like Batman Pepe, Nu Pepe and Borat Pepe, which spread wildly across Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. Each iteration featured the frog’s classic mug, his unctuous expression warped this way and that to appear sleepy, dazed, sad and angry.
Pepe’s internet acclaim continued to grow. Katy Perry shared a bleary-eyed and crying Pepe in 2014, along with the caption “Australian jet lag got me like.” Nicki Minaj followed suit, posting an image of Pepe showing off his juicy behind in a pair of tight, peach-colored booty shorts.
“I’ve realized that Pepe is beyond my control,” artist Furie told New York Magazine in 2016. “He’s like a kid, he grew up and now I have to set him free to live his life. It’s all good.”
Pepe’s future was irreparably thrown off course a year before that, when, in 2015, an online community of white nationalists developed a soft spot for Pepe’s droopy eyelids and self-satisfied smirk. The dark pockets of the internet launched a campaign to adopt Pepe as their own personal symbol, using the cartoon’s absurd and somewhat adorable aesthetic to make hateful messages appear playful and benign.
In 2015 and 2016, very different versions of Pepe began proliferating online: Pepe reading Mein Kampf, Pepe sipping from a swastika teacup, an anti-Semitic caricature of Pepe hinting at his involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. In style, the green critter still resembled a harmless joke, a stoner cartoon meant to elicit a blazed chuckle or two. Yet Pepe’s zany cuteness now served to make palatable grossly discriminatory views. As Emily Nussbaum put it: “The joke protected the non-joke.”
The goal of Pepe’s makeover, as alt-right internet user @JaredTSwift explained to Olivia Nuzzi in 2016, was to use the unassuming frog to usher white nationalism into the mainstream. And it worked. “People have adopted our rhetoric, sometimes without even realizing it,” Swift said. “We’re setting up for a massive cultural shift.” Pretty soon, Pepe the racist and antisemitic frog far out-shined Pepe the stoner frog in visibility and recognition. Few remembered his glory days as a “Boy’s Club” bro, instead understanding Pepe to be the creation of spiteful internet trolls.
During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump and Pepe forged an unlikely alliance when a Trump-esque Pepe adaptation, complete with yellow floppy hair, appeared to be policing the U.S. Mexican border and operating a gas chamber. To most of the internet, Pepe was now synonymous with hate, bigotry and Trump. Some even credit the frog with helping Trump win the election. (According to Furie, Pepe would not be the type to even vote.)
Pepe madness reached a surreal peak in September 2016, when the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe an official hate symbol, much to Furie’s confusion and disappointment. “In my mind, frogs are one of the most peaceful creatures,” he told HuffPost. “They just chill on lily pads and eat. You never really feel threatened by frogs in nature. I think that’s why they’re so popular in fairy-tales. They’re just ... chill.”
Furie did his best to alter Pepe’s fate, spearheading a social media campaign to #SavePepe. The artist also began to speak out, post-Pepe, against anti-Semitism and online hate at conferences and panels hosted by the ADL. He also collaborated with Save the Frogs! on a line of Pepe-centric goods, with all proceeds benefitting a wildlife organization devoted to protecting endangered frog species.
The artist made a valiant effort to protect Pepe from the garbage forces of the internet. But alas, something about Pepe had changed. And on May 6, 2017, Furie made the executive decision to say goodbye to his little green friend for good. He drew Pepe into death, featuring the frog in an open casket, his buddies toasting him farewell with a bottle of whiskey, which they then proceeded to spill on his face. Furie created the single-page comic for Fantagraphics’ “World’s Greatest Comics,” sordidly marking Free Comic Book Day.
Pepe’s life was a strange one, perhaps even the first of its kind. While no artwork is immune to possible interpretations that diverge from the artist’s intention, few images have taken as long, winding and bizarre a journey as little Pepe.
Born a humble character in a cult stoner zine, the benevolent frog was forever altered by internet fame. When Pepe died, he left this world a nationally recognized symbol for white supremacy. Who controls an image? Who can verify its true meaning? A cute, mellow frog became a harbinger of fascism, in part because the whole progression was too weird and kind of funny to take seriously. Kind of like the story of Trump himself.
Now, we believe, Pepe is in a better place. Hopefully he’s living the dream: drinking pop with one hand and helping to pee it out with the other. Fare thee well, sweet Pepe. You were too chill for this world. May you rest without fear of being appropriated by trolls for all of eternity.