Matt Furie is a Los Angeles-based American illustrator and artist of webcomics. He works in a happy, colourful and psychedelic style, which delves into childhood nostalgia and teenage slacker fun. His best known work is 'Pepe the Frog' (2005-2017) which became an Internet meme in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Unfortunately the amphibian got hijacked by hate groups who turned him into a symbol of white nationalism and racism, literally everything neither he, nor his creator, stood for. Furie was eventually forced to kill off his signature character in a widely mediatized Internet event and one of the biggest examples of creator backlash in history.


From: The Night Riders

Matt Furie was born in 1979 in Columbus, Ohio, and is of Sicilian descent. As a child he enjoyed watching cartoons, reading books, playing video games and doodling monsters and animals. He followed summer college classes at the Columbus School of Art and Design and studied art at Ohio Wesleyan University, where he graduated in 2001. Among his graphic influences are Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's 'X-Men', Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles', Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, M.C. Escher, Max Ernst, H.R. Giger, Charles M. Schulz, Robert Crumb, Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', Mike Judge's 'Beavis & Butt-head' and John Kricfalusi's 'Ren & Stimpy'. Furie also enjoys Pee-Wee Herman, David Lynch, David Attenborough and Jim Henson. His own art has the same charming spontaneity of children's drawings, but mixed with psychedelic imagery. One can often vaguely recognize twisted versions of pop culture characters like The Muppets, Ronald McDonald, Skeletor, Freddy Krueger or Falcor from 'The NeverEnding Story' in his illustrations. Furie doesn't care much about strong narratives or technical virtuosity. He purely wants to have fun, which definitely shows in his work, putting him in the same category as other deliberate pseudo-infantile artists like Jack Mendelsohn, Cal Schenkel, Gary Panter and Mark Marek. In an interview with Emma Kathan for www.psychicgloss.com Furie stated: "I try to stay in touch with my inner child and try not to lose that childlike wonder. It's important to me to stay in awe of all the beauty and weirdness in both the natural and the human world. It's been harder to hold on to that viewpoint as I've gotten older but that's been my goal."

In 2005 Furie created 'Pepe the Frog' in an independent comic book series named Boy's Club. Pepe is a green, big-lipped frog who lives like a slacker. He enjoys a laid-back, carefree existence along with his friends Andy the dog, Brett the bear and Landwolf the wolf. Most of their spare time is spent partying, smoking marijuana, eating junk food, surfing the Internet, playing pranks and/or video games and holding intense but banal discussions about trivial topics. Many of his one-page gags and adventures revolve around absurd events. Pepe always accepts things the way they are and keeps "cool" about it by spouting his familiar catch phrase: "Feels good, man!" He even sticks by this philosophy while urinating with his pants pulled all the way down, which became one of Pepe's most popular cartoons. Furie drew his one-page gag comics with Microsoft Paint and had no higher ambitions than just have some mindless fun. In 2006 'Pepe' received an official book publication.

By 2008 Furie noticed that his comics had gained popularity among Internet users. Pepe naturally appealed to high school and college students, particularly stoners. But even outside this demographic, many young people liked Pepe because he was such an inviting, happy-go-lucky character. As stupid and non-thrilling as his actions are: he at least enjoys what he does. Contrary to Kermit, Pepe feels it's easy bein' green. The comic lacks the mean-spiritedness or cynicism of most independent web cartoons. His creator is not out to ridicule Pepe, but wants to celebrate his life philosophy. 'Pepe' images were shared by famous pop musicians like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, as well as reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian. The success also lead to more commercial ventures, like T-shirts. Soon Furie published 'Pepe' comics in the magazine The Believer, where they first appeared in colour.

Since Pepe was such an easy character to draw, various people made their own cartoons, comics and Photoshop/Illustrator images. Most were harmless variations which reimagined him as pop culture characters or media celebrities. Others created a parody religion around him named Kek, after the Egyptian frog-faced deity of the same name. Unavoidably, some people deliberately put the character in more offensive situations. Some of these could be shrugged off as satire or just shock for shock's sake. Others were more disturbing because they came across as genuine endorsements of white nationalism, racism and the extreme right. Pepe gained infamy during the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, when some bootleg cartoons depicted him as U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump, again not always clear whether meant as a joke or a tribute? In either way Trump himself proudly shared one of these fanmade 'Pepe Trump' cartoons on his Twitter account. This even spawned an official reaction from the U.S. Democratic Party. On candidate Hillary Clinton's website Trump's endorsement of Pepe was denounced in an official article as "a symbol associated with white supremacy". In 2016 Trump was elected as President of the United States. One of his supporters, white-nationalist activist Richard B. Spencer, was interviewed by CNN on 21 January 2017 wearing a Pepe the frog pin on his shirt. The footage - and Pepe! - got even more infamous when Spencer was punched in the face by a bystander.

Like any artist who loses control over his creation, Furie was naturally quite shocked. As a man of his times he completely understood that bootleg versions were unavoidable, particularly on the Internet. He didn't mind that others had fun with Pepe, even if he wasn't financially compensated for it. But he did object to the fact that his innocent, fun-loving character was misused to support hate groups and ideologies he disliked. What started out as a joke had suddenly become too disturbing, much like the comedic website 'Bert Is Evil' was eventually closed down when its creator noticed that one of his photo parodies - the one where Sesame Street puppet Bert was paired with terrorist Osama Bin Laden - turned up in the background of a real-life photograph of Bin Laden supporters.

Make Pepe Great Again

At first, Furie tried to ignore the events. In 2012 he quit his 'Boys Club' comics and moved on to other projects, such as illustrating children's books. But this didn't end the unwanted corruption of his character. Even the official Anti-Defamation League acknowledged Pepe as a racist symbol on par with the swastika, the White Power logo and the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan! Furie then tried to win his character back. In 2015-2016 he drew new comics starring Pepe for the website The Nib. One of them had Pepe urinating on a Pepe 'Trump' caricature, while wearing a cap reading "Make Pepe Great Again", a spoof of Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again". Furie also wrote an article published in Time Magazine, where he broke a lance for his creation and stated: "It's completely insane that Pepe has been labeled a symbol of hate, and that racists and anti-Semites are using a once peaceful frog-dude from my comic book as an icon of hate. It's a nightmare, and the only thing I can do is see this as an opportunity to speak out against hate. The problem with Pepe is that he's been stamped a hate symbol by politicians, hate groups, institutions, the media and, because of them, your mom. 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. 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."

Mad cartoon by Matt Furie

In 2017 Furie made an official cartoon for Mad Magazine, starring their mascot Alfred E. Neuman (originally designed by Norman Mingo) as Pepe. It was published in issue #544 (April 2017) and quite a honor, considering that Mad usually let their own artists draw Alfred as some kind of pop culture character. Yet, only a month later, on 8 May 2017, Furie decided to do what Robert Crumb did four decades earlier when his character 'Fritz the Cat' became something he could no longer stand behind: he killed him off. Pepe's death was deemed a worldwide newsworthy event.

Apart from comics, Matt Furie is also active as a children's novelist. In 2012 he published the book 'The Night Riders' (2012), about a rat and a frog who take a stroll outside at night. They meet all kinds of peculiar friends during their trip, which ends at sunrise. While lacking an actual plot the book ties in with the author's philosophy of life of just looking at the world in wonder and amazement. Matt Furie lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Aiyana Udesen - who is also an artist - and their child.


Pepe's Funeral (published in World's Greatest Cartoonists 2017 by Fantagraphics in May 2017)

mattfurie.tumblr.com
Interview with Matt Furie by thehundreds.com
Interview with Matt Furie by comicsbeat.com

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