A fascinating exploration of not just a cartoon character, but the nature of 21st century sociopolitical discourse, “Feels Good Man” is concerned with the ways art can outgrow its own artist. A somewhat linear exploration of cartoonist Matt Furie’s “Pepe the Frog” character, the documentary by rookie filmmaker Arthur Jones takes several interesting turns and sheds some light on a fictional character and an associated movement that arguably influenced the course of history.
When cartoonist Matt Furie first drew the frog that would become “Pepe” about 15 years ago, it was just one of four characters for his ‘Boy’s Club’ comic. In Furie’s universe, the anthropomorphic frog and his three carefree roommates enjoyed a bohemian, post-college-like existence predicated on drinking and generally taking it easy. In the mid-2000s, this Pepe character became a sort of in-joke for internet message boards, where meme culture was beginning to take off and flourish: with Pepe’s image-making frequent appearances in a decidedly non-political context.
The documentary details how this Pepe character grew in popularity, which led to mainstream acceptance and use of the frog image outside of the fringe corners of the internet from whence it sprung. This, in turn, led to an aggressive retaliation campaign by the first-gen. meme generators (found predominantly on 4chan) to take back their creation. The irony of their “reclamation” of a character that wasn’t theirs, to begin with, is only briefly touched upon in “Feels Good Man,” yet it paints a very interesting picture of a specific sub-set of people whose disassociation with reality and skewed perception of victimhood runs through the center of this entire discourse.
As Jones moves through this history, and how Pepe transformed into a bludgeon for the emerging Alt-Right, he returns again and again to Furie, who explains his evolving feelings about his creation and its surprising popularity. Although he started out as an apolitical stoner with a very liberal view on things like copyrights, this good-natured man evolved into someone else entirely. Like so many people over the last 4-5 years: Furie found himself at a crossroads where being neutral was itself a choice.
Indeed, Furie went from a guy who felt that artists should never be confined to notions of ownership to one that had to get a haircut, put on a suit, and sit through a deposition with Alex Jones and Infowars. His creation became a symbol for racist, xenophobic, violent rhetoric, and its champions had begun to profit from his intellectual property. This was a development Furie could not stomach, and consequently, he went from a laid back, neutral artist with few political opinions to a person actively fighting against an Alt-Right movement that had co-opted his creation.
And that is perhaps this documentary’s greatest accomplishment, for its narrow, micro-focus is a window into an evolving global conversation related to the confluence of anonymous internet culture and the ways political binaries have subsumed everything. Although Pepe the Frog did not profess any ideology or political influence by way of his creator, the way his likeness became weaponized by the incel collective fed into a specific political movement associated with Donald Trump and the United States’ Republican party.
The people who use(d) Pepe and other memes like him gave birth to a new political discourse that provided a voice to a subsect of people whose only real concern was to punish the “normies” whose stable, traditional lives made theirs seem less important by comparison. This found a home within a political base that likewise felt ignored by social forces passing them by, and for whom Donald Trump and “triggered” culture became a guiding light.
There’s a lot of information crammed into the 92-minute documentary, yet it never comes across as overstuffed or chaotic. “Feels Good Man” moves effortlessly through roughly 15 years of history related to Furie and his Pepe character, incorporating discussions about the proliferation of 4chan, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and even cryptocurrency culture all while retaining its focus on Pepe as a unique cultural artifact. And while it is a bit light on what one might consider “mainstream” talent (clips of popular media personalities like Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee pop up, yet don’t appear as interview subjects), those that do speak on-camera do so with reasonable authority on the subject.
“Feels Good Man” is an intriguing look behind an online curtain that rarely gets pulled back, and is investigated critically even more infrequently. Slick animation graphics and well-paced interview testimonials bolster the effort and paint a very clear (if regrettable) picture of how art can sometimes get away from the artist. [B+]