For a film about a cartoon frog, Feels Good Man takes us into some pretty dark corners of society. Arthur Jones’ documentary will make your head spin, your stomach turn and your heart ache for the state of humanity. Do not despair, however. Feels Good Man is, at its core, an optimistic tale - a story of hope, friendship and love.
The cartoon character in question is Pepe the Frog. He was created by Matt Furie, the somewhat reluctant hero of this surreal story. At the beginning of the film, we watch as Matt draws Pepe - always starting with his little froggie eyes.
“It takes tonnes of time to come up with a character that you like enough to draw over and over again,” Matt says. He recalls that there has been a “slow drip of frogs” over his entire life - one little frog after another. “Eventually," he explains, "it was Pepe. A happy little frog.”
Matt, a soft spoken artist with a positive attitude and inherent sweetness, poured much of himself (and even aspects of his partner, Aiyana) into Pepe. The frog featured in his comic, Boys Club, with four other cartoon characters - Landwolf the party dog (possibly inspired by his roommate Chris), Andy the joker and Brett, who loves to dance.
The humour in Boys Club focused on post-college life and, according to Matt, Pepe was the little brother of the group. The jokes were silly, harmless. How then did Pepe the Frog become a symbol of white nationalist hate by the alt-right?
Feels Good Man charts how and why Pepe was hijacked by a number of enthusiastically toxic and divisive groups. Hiding online thanks to websites and platforms such as 4chan (where anyone can post comments and share images anonymously), Pepe the Frog became a symbol of hate.
For those not particularly well versed in 4chan, the origin and power of memes and Neet (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) culture, Jones’ film proves quite the education. Vibrant animation and a host of fascinating experts, psychologists and authors help us navigate this disturbing territory. Meanwhile, we also meet Mills, a young “4channer”, proud of his Neet status (and, for some reason, his squalid living space).
Pepe, we are told, was chosen both because of his easily relatable image, his simple design and his catchphrase “feels good man”. According to Mills, “Pepe felt uniquely 4chan.” Unfortunately, being uniquely 4chan is not a desirable attribute. Feels Good Man explains that in order to be seen on 4chan’s message boards, you need to attract attention. One of the ways of getting eyeballs on your posts is to be as controversial as possible.
As memes of Pepe began to flood 4chan, the frog also became known to normal people (known on 4chan as, cue eyeroll, “normies”) outside the message board’s realm. This sent the Neets et al into something of a tailspin.
Mills states that Pepe's use by such "normies" (or, he adds, anyone who identifies as a “sex haver”, a “woman” or a “neurotypical, socially well adjusted person”) would risk the fury of a barrage of angry, raging online Pepes.
Meanwhile, 4channers reacted to Pepe's growing popularity by spewing ever more controversial Pepe images online - trying to make the frog as repulsive as possible. Cue Pepe as Hitler, Trump Pepe (which the President actually retweeted, gaining himself a whole new toxic fanbase), Pepe flying a plane into the World Trade Centre and smug Pepe, the perfect trolling icon.
Confront any of these groups about their offensive posts, memes and drawings and they will feign innocence. It’s just a cartoon frog. Why would you take that seriously? It’s just a joke. Of course, it’s just a joke. Until, as we see in Feels Good Man, it really isn’t.
For a large part of the documentary, Matt remains remarkably sanguine about the situation. “I’m just a spectator to how things kind of mutate and evolve on the internet,” he muses. “It’s just garbage.” He tries to move on - creating a beautiful new book, The Night Riders, about another frog and his pet rat.
However, as much as Matt tries to remain positive, he becomes inexorably drawn into the toxicity that Pepe has come to represent. It begins to impact his mental health, his personal life and his business. Heartbreakingly, the situation also threatens to destroy his creative spirit.
Some contributors in the film go so far as to suggest that Matt’s wilful naivety is to blame for what happened to his frog. While Matt is, perhaps, naive, who could have predicted just how dark Pepe would become? Few people have suffered as much from the abuse of Pepe the Frog than Matt and to blame him seems cruel.
Just when you feel that there is no end to Pepe’s nightmarish, spiralling descent, Feels Good Man introduces a welcome (so, so welcome) glimmer of hope. Realising that he has no choice, Matt rises to the challenge of saving Pepe and, thankfully, he is not alone.
As a result, Jones’ documentary ends as it begins - by reminding us that Pepe the Frog was not born of hate but created out of love, positivity, friendship and humour. If, after everything he has been through, there is still a chance of redemption for Pepe, well, there is hope for us all.