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How Pepe Turned Brown

Inside every cartoon frog is a totalitarian screaming to get out.

Illustration by James Clapham

In simpler times (aka 2005, the height of the Bush years), Pepe the Frog was a ne’er-do-well stoner, whose frequent munchies often resulted in acid reflux attacks. Created by artist Matt Furie for a comic book called Boy’s Club, the affable frog and his friends reveled in scatological humor and other juvenilia. It wasn’t pathbreaking or insightful by any stretch, but it was hardly creeping fascism.

Pepe’s popularity jumped in 2008. That year, a page from Boy’s Club showing Pepe peeing with his pants pulled down made the rounds on 4Chan, and his accompanying catchphrase, “feels good man,” quickly became ubiquitous on the website’s infamous /b/ board. In time, Pepe’s sunny optimism would grow more complex, as anonymous web users developed a range of emotions for him, including Sad Frog, Smug Frog, and Angry Pepe. Stripped of his pre-recession innocence, Pepe would never be the same.

Before he became an alt-right icon, Pepe unwittingly became a sought-after commodity. In 2014, 4chan users began trading customized Pepe macros, calling their creations “rare” Pepes. The inevitable backlash saw collectors flood the web with huge batches of “rare” Pepes to depreciate the market, but not before someone almost sold 1,200 Pepe images on eBay for $99,166, or more than $80 a Pepe.

Pepe’s sad descent reached its nadir this election cycle, as white supremacists decided to “reclaim” Pepe from the “normies” misusing his image. Pepe’s transformation into fascist icon began last July on 4chan’s /pol/, or “Politically Incorrect” board, with a macro of a Smug Pepe with Trump hair grinning in front of a US border fence.

As Trump embraced the amphibian, retweeting a cartoon of Pepe with Trumpian hair behind a POTUS lectern, we witnessed the spectacle of the Clinton campaign publishing an article denouncing a cartoon frog. The response to white supremacy suggested by the campaign was typically uninspiring: “Vote.”

Their strategy couldn’t keep Trump out of the White House. Neither could a valiant campaign to #SavePepe prevent Pepe’s tragic downfall into racism, making him the first frog to be labeled a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. With the Right on the move, we can expect more of even the dankest memes to fall prey to the forces of reaction.