It’s been a long, strange trip for the cartoon character known as Pepe the Frog, widely known as the “sad frog meme” on the internet. What started as a drawing by the comics artist Matt Furie has, over the past eight or so years, gone through the internet meme-shredder and taken on a maniacal life of its own, exploding in popularity and even being shared by pop stars including Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. One recent development in this narrative is the character’s election-year appropriation by members of the controversial alt-right movement, who have hacked Pepe to include such features as Hitler-esque mustaches, yarmulkes, and Ku Klux Klan hoods. This led to a piece on Hillary Clinton’s website calling Pepe a “symbol associated with white supremacy” and, most recently, Time reporting yesterday that the Anti-Defamation League has officially declared that Pepe is a “hate symbol.”
The character’s origins are much more innocuous. Aesthetically, Pepe is heavily indebted to the work of both the art collective Paper Rad and the larger underground comics movement centered around Providence, Rhode Island, at the turn of the century. In an 2009 interview with Vice, Furie had the following to say about Paper Rad member Ben Jones (who currently has an exhibition on view at The Hole in New York):
Ben Jones is like the Rolling Stones in the 60s, and I’m like the Black Crowes or early-90s Aerosmith. I actually first found out about Paper Rad years ago through an article in Vice. After that I hunted down some Ben Jones comics and they totally blew my mind. He had jokes like “What’s crappening?” with a drawing of a dude shitting his pants and other stuff like a guy teaching a dolphin what a food “wrap” was. They were done in a complex yet simple style and I fell in love with them. When I set out to start doing comics, he’s what inspired me to make the characters simple line drawings rather than these detailed crosshatched masterpieces I’d been trying to make at the time. There are a lot of similarities between my Boy’s Club comic and Ben Jones’s stuff like Alfe, but at the same time there are also interesting spiritual elements mixed in with the humor in Ben Jones’s work. My stuff is pretty much limited to fart humor, catchphrases, and vomit gags.
This all seems a million miles away from the frog’s current twisted reality. “Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular Internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users,” wrote ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt in a statement. Furie, for his part, recently told The Atlantic that “it’s just a phase, and come November, it’s just gonna go on to the next phase.”