As the documentary “Feels Good Man” tells it, when the cartoonist Matt Furie learned that his comic character Pepe the Frog had become an internet meme, he decided not to enforce his copyright. “I’m like an artist, so I don’t like suing other artists,” he explains. Initially, the meme seemed harmless, but Pepe evolved into symbol of white nationalism, anti-Semitism and violence. When Jeremy Blackburn, a computer scientist, shows Furie data that suggest that Pepe has become an “entry point to radicalization,” he asks Furie if he feels “any personal responsibility.”
The co-opting of Pepe is not easy to trace, and “Feels Good Man” plunges into that ribbit hole with clarity, humor (when called for) and outright horror (frequently). The director, Arthur Jones, is also an animator, and vibrant cartoon sequences give the movie a refreshing rhythm and visual texture.
“Feels Good Man” paints Furie as a gentle California children’s book author caught off-guard by Pepe’s transmogrification. In this regard, Jones, a friend of Furie, uses kid gloves. Adam Serwer, who interviewed Furie for The Atlantic, says he found him “somewhat naïve” about the far right’s appropriation of Pepe. But you’d have to read the interview, published in 2016 two weeks before the Anti-Defamation League labeled Pepe a hate symbol, to know that even then, Furie felt that the Pepe-Nazi associations were “just a phase.” He has since fought back aggressively.
“Feels Good Man” delves into other bizarre cultural manifestations of Pepe, with commentary from an occultist, traders in a Pepe-based cryptocurrency and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong who have made the frog a positive symbol. At its best, the movie is a vertiginous, head-slapping examination of the tangible, unpredictable consequences of making art.