▶ Feels Good Man is streaming on BBC iPlayer
Nomen est omen: the name is a sign. So wrote the Roman playwright Plautus over 2,200 years ago, patently failing to predict the 21st century rise of slacker cartoonist Matt Furie, who were the ancient proverb accurate would be known as Matt Incredibly Relaxed. Feels Good Man is a two-pronged biographical documentary, tracking the divergent paths of the naïve Furie and his wayward offspring Pepe the Frog, a once-innocent character co-opted by alt-right memers for nefarious purposes.
“It’s just been a slow drip of frogs throughout my entire life”, explains Furie as the film begins, his deadpan, mumbled delivery making this slice of absurdity sound like an entirely ordinary statement. Matt has always been drawing frogs, but his favourite is Pepe, an anthropomorphised amphibian whose typical habitat is not so much lily pad as bachelor pad, where he bums around with his bong-hitting, pizza-chomping, do-nothing friends.
However, these halcyon days are short-lived. The delightful animated title sequence shows Pepe and the Boy’s Club – the name of the comic book Furie collected these early stories into – reacting with horror as their TV shows Pepe’s chummy grin changing into a smug smirk, his apparel turning from thrift store chic to swastika-emblazoned uniform.
The humdrum nature of Pepe’s life is what makes his ascendancy amongst the ranks of internet racists – particularly those of the red-hatted persuasion – both bemusing and oddly logical. (Adding to the weirdness is news reporters’ frequent mispronunciation of ‘Pepe’ as ‘Pee Pee’, making the burgeoning threat of violence attached to his image hard to take seriously.)
As one of the sublimely-titled talking heads (a Professor of Meme Studies) explains, Pepe’s blank-canvas nature is what made him such a perfect figurehead for the alt-right: they made him into one of their own. It’s a kind of bastardisation of the fairytale of the Princess and the frog – our sweet Prince Pepe is brought to life, but rather than an honourable Princess it’s a racist Incel giving the kiss of life.
Pepe’s transformation was insidious. His online debut came on a bodybuilding forum, when a single frame from the Boy’s Club comic book was ripped from its context, leaving just a head and a speech bubble which said ‘Feels good man’. Pepe was a friendly mascot celebrating weight loss and muscle gain – even at this humble starting point the gangly man-frog seemed out of place.
From there Pepe leapt onto the boards of internet swamp 4chan, where he was used a reaction image, a succinct expression of emotion – in other words, he became a meme. The simple design of his froggy face made duplication and distortion simple. A Pepe existed for every occasion and, 4chan being what it is, many of those occasions were cause for the spewing of racist vitriol. Thus Pepe the Racist Frog was born, and when in 2015 4channers decided that it would be fun to try and get Donald Trump elected President, he became their mascot.
Feels Good Man’s narrative thrust comes from this downward spiral, and while this tale is being told the film is absolutely captivating. Out of the stream of screen-shotted memes come jumping moments of original animation that elevate the more stolid sections of the story and remind the audience how charismatic Pepe can be. Intelligent talking heads contextualise these absurd events and build a framework that makes each development seem logical.
As fascinating as Pepe’s story is, it is his creator Matt Furie who is the doc’s most compelling character. His quiet Californian life is an anchor in the storm, a chance for the viewer to catch a breath in the midst of a whirlwind narrative. Furie, initially bewildered by his amphibian son’s waywardness, eventually fights back and attempts to reclaim Pepe as a force for good. His efforts are piss (or ‘Pee Pee’) in the wind. He’s an underdog against the Big Bad Internet – in a sense mirroring the perceived underdog status Trump successfully wielded in his presidential campaign.
The rare missteps in Feels Good Man come in its most bizarre moments. A rapid-fire description of a semi-serious cryptocurrency called PepeCoin is a niche too far, a perplexing aside that bombards the audience with information. This scene also features a grating and obnoxious PepeCoin millionaire who sings “Rare Pepe!” to the tune of the Pokémon theme whilst speeding around in his Lamborghini; he’s a character that could easily have been cut.
Equally baffling is the inclusion of John Michael Greer, an occultist whose explanations of Meme Magic gives the 4channers’ text-based incantations – pleas addressed to the ancient Egyptian god Kek (yes, really) – an inappropriate solemnity which belies their inherent irony. He calmly explains that these forum posts helped win Trump the presidency. If you say so.
The US is once again taking to the polls to decide whether to double down on President Trump or cut its losses. Four years is a long time on the Internet (remember Harambe the Gorilla and Vine?) and 4chan and Pepe are no longer zealous in their support for Trump. As with the troll-in-chief, Pepe the Racist Frog’s novelty has worn off. The question that remains is, can the charismatic leader of a movement be reborn?
Pepe that is, not Trump.