When was the first time you encountered Pepe The Frog? Was it as the sad frog meme that spread like wildfire on 4chan? Was it in a series of make-up tutorials on Youtube? Or when Nicki Minaj made the evolving meme mainstream with a retweet? Or was it after Pepe “went dark,” becoming an icon appropriated by the alt-right as a symbol of white supremacy and Trump support? Maybe it was when Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was explaining his Pepe lapel pin while being punched in the face by an anonymous hero. Or maybe, you’re one of the comic books fans that remember this evocative frog from the innocent time before he became the notorious poster boy for every brand of edgelord/incel/bigot trolling. The bizarre journey through all of this and more is unfurled in the documentary Feels Good, Man.
That title might seem confounding considering it centers on a comic book character that has sparked anger and controversy across years around the globe. However, “Feels Good, Man” ties back to Pepe’s humble beginnings, where he was one of a quartet of quirky heroes of Boy’s Club. Created and drawn by Matt Furie, the comic was about oddities of post-collegiate life, which he posted on Myspace. Then, Pepe with his “feels good, man” catchphrase and expressive mug caught on with the 4chan crowd, who related to his eccentricities and agonies.
Directed by Arthur Jones, Feels Good, Man interviews experts on comics, internet culture, memes, and politics to detail the winding road of Pepe’s story. Jones also gives a lot of screentime to a shockingly frank 4chan incel who wistfully remembers the days when Pepe belonged to his ilk before the “normies” (meaning “sex-havers and women”) invaded their turf by appropriating the character they’d already appropriated. In a particularly disturbing segment, he recounts the spree killing of murderous misogynist Elliot Rodgers as a dark victory for his community. This is just one of many ways that Feels Good, Man is absolutely infuriating.
Props to Jones, as he clearly created a safe space in interviews to allow his subjects to express themselves with candor. What they have to say is shocking but essential to understand this complicated topic. Another interviewee expresses an unrepressed glee at how the liberal backlash against Pepe helped the Trump campaign. The doc also employs clips of conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and problematic youtube Logan Paul praising Pepe, as well as a flood of Pepe memes that are horrifically anti-Black, anti-Semitic, violent, misogynistic, and otherwise profoundly repulsive. In this way, Jones gives an unflinching insight into the dark side of internet appropriation, where memes can run wild and create a stupid and savage chapter of American History. As someone who follows and frequently covers the cross-section of entertainment and politics, I thought I knew the bulk of Pepe’s story. Yet Feels Good, Man surprised and repulsed me anew.
However, while this journey’s details can be absolutely stomach-churning, at its core Feels Good, Man is about the artist who lost control of his creation. Furie drew a feel-good frog who liked to hang out with his friends and piss with his pants around his ankles. When he was posting one-page comics to Myspace, he could not imagine what might become of it. At first, he was flattered when Pepe became a 4chan celeb. While he was trying to figure out how to spin this popularity into profit, the alt-right took over Pepe, leaving Furie flummoxed as to how to reclaim what was once sweet and his. Yet, Furie himself becomes another infuriating element of the doc.
With a soft-spoken delivery and a snoozy stoner vibe, it’s easy to believe he was overwhelmed by the madness of Pepe’s trajectory. Even watching Jones’ careful plotting of this path, you yourself may feel like you’ve lost your grip on reality. The doc charts how Furie tried to distance himself from Pepe, then reclaim him, and rehabilitate the frog who’d become “an entry point to radicalism.” However, most of these efforts feel frustratingly feeble and clueless. Worse yet, there’s a galling sense that Furie is the greatest victim of the Pepe narrative. His “aw shucks” interviews repeatedly stress how he’s trying to “stay positive,” but struggles when his name is tied to a noted symbol for hate. His friends lament how he’s such a good guy who just wants to make childrens books without this scandal hanging over him. While their vexation is understandable, it’s tone-deaf to focus so much on the emotional wounds of Furie when the doc also displays caught-on-tape hate crimes carried out by white mean wearing Pepe t-shirts and masks. Furie is not Pepe’s only victim, and likely not even the most dramatically impacted one. But the doc doesn’t have the stomach to linger on that thought.
Feels Good, Man is a shocking doc so chock-full of disorienting details, painful flashbacks to murder, bigotry, and Trump’s 2016 campaign, that it feels unbearably long at just 92-minutes. Still, I admire how much insight and information Jones works into this runtime. Perhaps he thought a Furie focus would give audiences a breath between montages of deeply disturbing content. Maybe he felt Furie’s story humanizes Pepe or allows the legacy of this curious character to be recalibrated. Still, I wonder what was the core purpose of this doc? Was it to warn the public about how the bullsh*t memes and trolling of online agitators can spill deplorably and devastatingly into the real world? If so, you’d think Jones might reach out to those who’ve felt the harmful effects of Pepe memes, despite having nothing to do with their perpetuation. Instead, it seems Feels Good, Man’s goal is to exonerate Furie and the frog he cannot escape. And that kind of feels f*cked, man.
Feels Good, Man is part of Fantasia 2020, and will be available in the US on September 4. To learn more about the festival and how you can participate, visit their site.
Header Image Source: Youtube