The long national nightmare of the 2016 Presidential Election is over and now the long national nightmare of a Donald Trump presidency has begun. Whether you think Trump is the second coming of Hitler or you have a less alarmist opinion that he is simply a vacuous, orange baboon, his administration is just as infuriating and worrying. I mention this, not because Trump is in any way directly connected to the comic that is the subject of this review, but to give context to it, as one of the book’s central characters has become somewhat of an unwilling symbol of hate in recent times.
Pepe and the Alt-Right
Back in the mindfuck pre-election era, you may remember reading about a droopy-eyed frog named Pepe. This green dude had somehow become a widely recognized symbol of the alt-right movement. You may have seen this crudely rendered anthropomorphic amphibian engaged in equally crude acts: sporting a Hitler ‘stache; flipping the bird while wearing a swastika t-shirt; urinating on something or somebody, etc. But who is Pepe and where did he come from? As one article on the Internet lazily states, “The precise origins of Pepe the Frog are, like all imageboards memes, obscure and unimportant.” Unimportant to the point the author would go onto make perhaps, but obscure? Not if you take on the Herculean task of typing a few words into a search engine. A post election update to the aforementioned article did recognize the original creator of the character but then decried the artist’s inability to understand the Pepe phenom. (What a cuck, right?)
To say the alt-right has risen, in part, means that is has simply been given a name. It has existed in some form for decades. It existed back in the 1980s in my high school when underachieving yet occasionally clever burnouts scribbled swastikas on their notebooks with no real understanding of what they symbolized. They were experimenting with an image that was offensive and taboo which was why they got a kick out it. They were certainly too intellectually lazy, perhaps even incapable of empathizing with the victims of the atrocities carried out under that banner. It was funny to them that anyone would get worked up about it. They lacked imagination. Not much has changed.
I don’t don’t mean to downplay the effect the alt-right has had on social media, the real media and society as a whole. These trolls have the very real potential for very real violence and hatred, but much of the alt-right “movement” is an entirely juvenile phenom. Case in point, “Dicks out for Harambe,”. It may make a teenager or twenty-something basement dweller feel good when he (yes, I used a gender-specific pronoun) says it, but it’s not a political philosophy. It’s the exact opposite of one.
The Internet is a dark and horrible place where bad things happen to good people, or good frogs in some cases, and a bad thing happened when Pepe was co-opted by alt-right trolls.
Pepe and The Boys
Pepe’s creator, Matt Furie, is a Los-Angeles-based illustrator and comics artist. His Pepe character gained notoriety after it started showing up in various Trump twitter feeds and trolling memes. Pepe became so prevalent by late fall of 2016, that The Anti-defamation League declared him to be a symbol of hate. Furie has taken umbrage with Pepe’s misappropriation as well and partnered with the league late last year in an effort to reclaim Pepe for the forces of good. It’s going to be a long battle.
Once upon a time twelve years ago, Pepe was a perfectly happy stoner slacker frog who lived with his stoner slacker buddies Landwolf, Andy and Bret. They existed in Furie’s Boy’s Club comics. Boy’s Club is chock full of the male comics artist’s guiltiest pleasures; masturbation, getting high and farting. The boys also belch, barf and beat off in simple single line multi-panel strips. They eat pizza, really long hotdogs and enormous sandwiches, play video games, experience mind-melting hallucinations and wear ironic t-shirts while delivering non sequiturs. The subject matter is crude perhaps, but the characters certainly do not harbor any hate or malice towards each other or anyone else. They simply exist in the apartment they share and do stupid and/or gnarly things to or in front of each other. Harmless.
There’s an allure to the dark, anonymous Internet where anything goes and free speech reigns in all its ugly and unintended forms. It’s a place where anyone can be anything. A shy, misguided teenager or slightly bent slacker twenty-something can find power using their words to torment and offend. Real trolls live there too. There are left-wing, right-wing and wingless trolls and many claim to be victims even as they victimize. It’s possible to completely separate the hateful symbol and the goofy stoner frog of Furie’s Boys Club and I recommend everyone does, as this frog genie is not likely going back in the bottle anytime soon. As I write this the French version of Pepe, Pepe Le Pen, gears up to help another rightwing populist gain power in France. Hopefully they serve his legs on a plate with butter and lemon juice—Chris Auman