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Pepe the Frog was killed by his creator. But his alt-right legacy lives on.

Pepe is an unfortunate testament to the durability of meme culture — for better and worse.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

After a 12-year life span, Pepe the Frog is dead. The troubled cartoon and unwitting face of the alt-right movement was put to death by his creator, comic artist Matt Furie, on Saturday, May 6, 2017. He leaves behind a controversial legacy — as a character once beloved by independent comics fans who unwittingly became caught up in a maelstrom of online hate speech.

A cartoon frog who came to symbolize the far-right, white nationalist fringe movement known as the alt-right, much to his creator’s chagrin, Pepe received his symbolic burial as a part of this year’s Free Comic Book Day. Furie, who created Pepe in 2005 and made him a recurring part of the single-panel comic Boy’s Club, published a single-page strip featuring Pepe’s wake as part of publisher Fantagraphics’ Free Comic Book Day offering, “World’s Greatest Cartoonists.” The strip features Pepe’s Boy’s Club friends giving him a typical sendoff:

Bleeding Cool

If only that were all it took to save Pepe from what he became.

Furie has attempted to deal with the co-opting of his creation before

Pepe had long been a 4chan meme, but as the alt-right gained prominence on 4chan and other meme havens, he became a symbol of racist rhetoric and hate speech. Last year the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its database of hate symbols, and when the “free speech” Twitter alternative Gab launched as a haven for its alt-right user base, it featured a Pepe-like frog as its logo. Pepe’s use as a symbol for US white nationalism became so well-known that in January, the Russian Embassy actually used it to troll British politicians on Twitter.

Furie was deeply upset by the use of his art as a code for hate speech, and tried to fight the trend in his own way. He subsequently partnered with the ADL for a “Save Pepe” campaign, and published a despairing op-ed in Time in which he described the situation as “a nightmare.”

But since copyright law protects Pepe’s memeification as parody, the only way Furie could have successfully reclaimed Pepe from the alt-right was if the general populace responded en masse and helped him out by adopting Pepe as a symbol for good. Unfortunately for Furie, the general populace was already gun-shy of the frog due to its association with harassment and hate speech.

“If I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt,” wrote Lindy West in January, in an essay about why she was leaving the social media platform. That this curt description could stand in as shorthand for “a member of the alt-right using a profile picture of Pepe the Frog while tweeting misogynistic hate speech to attack a feminist” indicates just how far Pepe’s image has been altered in the public eye.

The alt-right doesn’t care about Pepe’s “death” any more than it cares about Pepe’s origins

The harsh truth is that Furie’s latest gambit to change Pepe’s legacy isn’t likely to be any more successful than his previous attempts. Remix culture is a double-edged sword: While it allows images and art to continually live in new forms on the internet outside of their creators’ vision, this memeification also means that Pepe has been able to evolve — or, more accurately, devolve — past Furie’s control.

To members of the alt-right who’ve adopted Pepe as their own, Furie was never a part of Pepe’s narrative: To them, he has always lived outside of his creator’s control. In fact, it’s likely that many members of the alt-right never even knew Pepe the meme started out as someone’s individual creation.

Subsequently, members of the alt-right and 4chan seem unimpressed by the media’s reports of his “death.” You can’t kill a meme, and 4chan seems to be viewing the media’s rush to declare otherwise as a symbol of its power to sway the press into reporting on a meme, despite famous media attempts to argue 4chan’s perceived irrelevance to larger pop culture.

It makes sense that 4chan’s nihilistic attitude toward memes and their creation ultimately helped fuel a political and ideological movement that has as its core goal the upheaval of social norms. 4chan virtually invented the concept of the internet meme as we know it, and a meme itself is a disruptive entity — an image that takes on a life of its own outside of its originally intended purpose, and then evolves according to the whims of the people who view it.

In keeping with this tradition, some fans have already begun memeifying Furie’s comic — to show the frog still in the coffin but already reawakening as a zombified Pepe.

If nothing else, at least Pepe’s symbolic burial might allow Furie to finally move on — and perhaps create a new artistic symbol to repudiate all the zombie white supremacist frogs who’ve risen in the original Pepe’s name.

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