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Pepe the Frog's creator can't save him from the alt-right, but he keeps trying anyway

Matt Furie is crowdfunding a peace-loving Pepe the Frog zine in an effort to rebrand the co-opted character.

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.

The latest episode in the ongoing saga of the alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog finds its original creator, Matt Furie — who recently attempted to kill off Pepe — attempting to resurrect his character from the grave, in order to refashion him in a kinder, gentler image.

Furie has launched a Kickstarter for a comic zine called Save Pepe, which aims to recreate Pepe as “a universal symbol for peace, love, and acceptance.”

If it’s successful, the zine could finally give Pepe’s creator some peace of mind — or at least some financial return — after a “nightmare” year in which he’s seen his creation become a universally recognized symbol of white supremacy.

But it’s far more likely that the attempt will be yet another failed effort to reclaim for the general public a meme that seems to have been completely appropriated by the alt-right.

Furie hates the alt-right’s appropriation of his most famous character

Furie has spent most of the past year trying to disentangle his now-infamous character, who first appeared in the comic Boy’s Club in 2005, from the white nationalism and racism with which it has become associated.

The alt-right members of 4chan, where Pepe had long been the source of numerous popular memes, chose the frog as their unofficial mascot sometime around 2014, when the alt-right began to grow in visibility online. Sparked by the tensions of the 2016 presidential campaign, Pepe’s image began to spread beyond 4chan and its outlying forums into social media and other more mainstream, accessible sectors of the internet, often accompanying sprees of harassment and targeted hate speech.

Pepe’s image became so linked with white supremacy that in September the Anti-Defamation League dubbed the frog a hate symbol, and Hillary Clinton warned the public about his image. Ever since, Furie has been trying and, many would argue, failing to reclaim his tarnished creation.

Furie first launched his "Save Pepe" campaign with the ADL shortly after Pepe was designated a hate symbol, encouraging the public to reengage with Pepe and “use the frog’s likeness as a force for good.” But as he was trying to “save” Pepe, Furie also clearly wrestled with the impact of his comic’s transformation; he drew a sad comic in the Nib in which Pepe transforms into Donald Trump, then awakens from the nightmare only to blink into nothingness. It’s a blunt statement on the creator’s existential crisis, which seemed to reach its apex when Furie seemed to give up and write off the cause as hopeless, killing off Pepe completely. In May, he published a Free Comic Book Day strip in which Pepe’s friends gave him a proper burial.

Now, however, Furie is attempting to revive Pepe — or rather “re-rebrand” the character, according to his accompanying Kickstarter video — eager to return Pepe’s public image to that of the chilled-out stoner Furie originally envisioned him as.

“He began his life as a blissfully stoned frog in my comic book Boy’s Club where he enjoyed a simple life of snacks, soda and pulling his pants all the way down to go pee,” Furie wrote on the Kickstarter campaign page. “I’d like to ask your help in funding a new zine celebrating a resurrected Pepe, one that shall shine a light in all this darkness and feel good again.”

Will Pepe’s resurrection be effective? Probably not.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that by now the Pepe meme, with all its horrible associations, is embedded in the cultural consciousness. Throughout Furie’s efforts to re-rebrand him, onlookers have been skeptical that the promotional effort would do anything but create “more nazi pepes,” while members of the alt-right have continued to proliferate the internet with their interpretation of Pepe. Furie’s comic killing off the frog also prompted mocking by the alt-right and remixes that brought him back to life as a zombie — a way of reminding Furie and viewers that you can’t kill a meme.

There’s also the possibility that Furie’s comic just isn’t as popular with people outside of the alt-right base as he’d like it to be; as of this writing, the Kickstarter has gained just over 100 backers. Cynics within the alt-right have so far seemed to mostly shrug off the idea, with some wondering why Furie didn’t just sell meme-friendly Pepe merchandise for profit and donate the proceeds to leftist causes.

It’s clear, however, that Furie wants the comic to mean something different within the current, divisive cultural landscape — and that he’s not done fighting for the cause.

“Before he got wrapped up in politics, Pepe was an inside-joke and a symbol for feeling sad or feeling good and many things in between,” Furie wrote last year. “I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.”