Feels Good Man: Froggy Bottom, by David Bax
There’s a good chance that a mere glimpse at the image of Pepe the Frog fills you with disgust. The cartoon amphibian’s pillowy features have adorned so much digital hate speech that he’s entered the hall of fame of villainous iconography. Literally; he’s on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols, alongside the swastika and the confederate flag. After seeing Arthur Jones’ Feels Good Man, however, the character might inspire a different reaction, a deep pity for Matt Furie, the soft-spoken, lovable and entirely caught off guard cartoonist who created Pepe.
Furie created Pepe, along with other anthropomorphized animal characters in web comics in the mid-00s. Pepe later appeared in print in Furie’s Boy’s Club comic. From there, the frog’s low-ambition self-honesty tapped into a group of (mostly) directionless, (mostly) white (mostly) boys who reappropriated him in clever memes, the language of people who have little to offer the world other than sweaty self-assurances that they’re very smart. Eventually, this group’s insecurities mutated into/aligned with those of white supremacists and Pepe was reappropriated once again. It’s both devastating and infuriating to watch happen but at least we get an excuse to relive the footage of Richard Spencer getting socked in the face.
Feels Good Man‘s first half or so largely takes the form of a primer or one of those informative, digestible explainer videos on YouTube. If you’re blessed enough to not be aware of what 4chan is or how it works, you’ll learn just enough to know to stay a million miles away from it. Jones also provides an impressively coherent, condensed history of the word “meme” from Richard Dawkins 1976 book The Selfish Gene to brands dunking on each other on Twitter.
Jones appears to have left on the cutting room floor a potentially engrossing portrait of the Bay Area art and comics scene to which Furie belongs. But he does include interviews with big names like cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt and comedian Emily Heller, just two of the many people in Furie’s circle eager to leap to his defense. They seem to feel, perhaps wisely, a need to protect Furie. One of them compares him to Daniel Johnston.
If Jones proves anything, though, it’s the futility of arguing with the alt-right. The entire design of the “U mad, bro?” attitude is that it’s all a joke and you’re the one who’s lame for caring about it (or anything). It’s very easy, in fact, to imagine 4chan mocking Feels Good Man. But that shouldn’t have any more effect on the rest of us than they claim anything has on them. The proper response to these dorks on this topic or any other ought to be, “Fuck them.”
Of course, that’s not always enough. The film may lose its personality as it morphs from Furie’s story into a recognizable progressive statement doc but it’s a sobering reminder that a bunch of pallid, racist babies can actually have a tremendously damaging effect on the world, either in the form of someone like the Isla Vista spree killer or of the Donald Trump campaign strategist Jones interviews. Feels Good Man will inspire more of the outrage upon which these people feed but that’s no reason not to be disgusted by them.