Pepe the Frog, 12, has died. The frog, created as an innocent comic book character but chosen for reasons still unexplained as a symbol of latter-day internet-based race hate, both ironic and sincere, died alone, in the forlorn hospital of comic book characters killed off by their makers after becoming hate symbols by out-of-control memeification.
The Guardian reports that Pepe was euthanized by his own creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, who did away his creation in a comic strip for Fantagraphics’ Free Comic Book Day. Pepe, born in 2005, appeared in an open casket in the comic strip, setting to rest both Pepe himself and any doubts about his future. (The openness of said casket negates any idea that the poor, well-intentioned, hatefully co-opted frog might have survived to be sighted, Tupac-style, for decades to come.)
Pepe was born in 2005 to Furie, who aside from creating cartoons makes art, writes children’s books, and from that description sounds awfully like a “cuck.” Pepe originally existed in black and white, but once his image began spreading across 4chan, he was given color — perhaps even against his own will. Similarly, his symbolic life was colored in, through no fault of his own, by 4chan’s burgeoning mass of repressed masculinity and racism. He grew and grew in symbolic weight as the ’10s passed, reaching a point where Donald Trump retweeted a rendering of himself as Pepe, and he was cited by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos as the embodiment of a word where, free of the grasping and suspiciously feminine hands of common decency, champions of free speech could spew hate without pesky social consequences. “So much fuuun!”
On the internet, where Pepe symbols reigned supreme, he became an amphibious swastika for the 21st century. The Clinton campaign described him as a symbol of white supremacy, and his image was included in the Anti Defamation League’s hate symbol database. Furie, a Clinton supporter, tried to reclaim Pepe from the Alt-Right and save his image with the “Save Pepe” campaign. “It’s the worst-case scenario for any artist to lose control of their work and eventually have it labelled like a swastika or a burning cross…I had to step up and speak on the cartoon frog’s behalf,” he said to the Guardian the time.
Sadly, that attempt clearly didn’t work, leaving Furie with little choice but to end Pepe altogether. Such a gesture could be interpreted either a symbol of power over, or concession to, the trolls. Or perhaps both. But ultimately, this weird battle over a symbol that helped provide imagistic fuel for an ugly reality reads mostly as a sad statement of acknowledgement of the breadth of contemporary American ugliness.
Comics blog Comic Book Resources delivered a eulogy for the hapless green blob: “While it’s unlikely Pepe’s official death will stop extremists from co-opting his image, this was, perhaps, the most effective way for Furie to reclaim his character; Pepe’s soul has returned to his creator. Rest in peace.” Those who loved him may want to remember Pepe as Furie created him, ugly but peaceful and unwaveringly mellow. For the rest of us, though, it’s more likely that you simply never want to see that horrific fucking face again.