I enter an express elevator to cartoon heaven. Don’t ask me where it is. It’s a trade secret.
While on that curious contraption hurtling towards that wild and wacky world, I take stock of my upcoming interview with Pepe the Frog.
He was born initially for the purpose of populating a Myspace blog maintained by cartoonist Matt Furie.
He gained national prominence with a striking visual: posing before a toilet, he urinates into it with his shorts pulled down to his knees.
Upon being asked by a roommate why he would do such a thing, he responded with the immortal words, “Feels good man."
The 2016 US Presidential election proved to be a fateful and deadly time for him. Trump supporters used him as a meme.
The Anti-Defamation League and the Clinton campaign condemned him as a hate symbol. In this chaos, his creator killed him off, some would say executed him, in the stormy days after the election.
Years later, my editor assigns me to do a retrospective on him. When I contact him, he is receptive and invites me for a face-to-face talk in his afterlife.
I arrive in cartoon heaven, which is… a large blank space, like a canvas. I stand around, uncertain of how I’ll meet the famous frog. “Hello? Is anyone out there?” I shout.
“I’m here to see Pepe the Frog!”
The blank space shifts into a kaleidoscope of colors. Objects appear in garish colors, as if painted by an unseen giant. Soon enough, I find myself in a cartoon apartment.
Typical of a college dorm, it is dirty and cluttered, except that I feel that I am in a comic panel.
“Hey! My man!” a raspy voice croaks out. “You must be Tim.”
“Yeah, we talked on the phone a few weeks ago?” I say uncertainly as I scan the blinding primary colors of the room for what surely must be Pepe.
The air in front of me shimmers and in blinks the man/frog himself.
I immediately recognize the bulbous green head, the odd human-like lips, the purely black irises in his eyes,
and the standard man’s loungewear: a loose-fitting tank top and oversized basketball shorts.
He rips out a disgusting wet fart, the smell forcing me back. He gives me a sly look and I recoil as his elongated red tongue catches a buzzing insect behind me.
“Sorry, man,” he apologizes. “Force of habit.”
I nod, willing my nerves back to normal. “I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.”
“Not at all,” he laughs. I try to remember if frogs weren’t supposed to have teeth. Did it really matter? He’s a cartoon frog! “Let me get you breakfast,” Pepe’s voice interrupts my thoughts.
“And we can shoot the shit.” He leads me to a nearby table and plops a bottle of draft beer in front of me. I touch the large cartoonish bottle to make sure it’s real.
“Don’t worry!” he smiles, noticing my wariness. “It’s heaven! Beer is perfectly okay for breakfast.”
I chuckle, noting how out of place I feel in the presence of this legendary meme. “So…” I ask. “How’s, er, life been treating you?” I watch him take a large chug of his beer as he sits.
Pepe ponders a moment, his eyes rolling down to the table. He takes another draught. “It’s alright, dude. Death still kinda hurts. I miss being famous, too.”
I bring out my reporter’s notebook, which is now an oversized cartoon object like everything else around me. Grunting with effort, I struggle with using my pen, which is now the size of my face.
“Here, let me help you,” he offers. He waves his hand and I stare in amazement as I find myself wearing giant white gloves. Somehow, this makes it much easier to write. “You should see Harambe.
He hates it when I do that!” Pepe exclaims.
Briefly, I consider asking him how a real-life gorilla ends up in cartoon heaven, but decide that this isn’t germane to the conversation.
“What do you miss most about being famous?” I finally ask.
A mist settles over his expressive eyes. “It was so much fun, you know? I just loved seeing myself doing all these awesome things.
It didn’t matter whether actual Nazis or antifascists were passing these memes around. It was all in good fun.” He sighs, “Then the unfun people got involved.”
“You mean the ADL and Hillary Clinton?”
“Yeah. Those assholes. When they butted in, suddenly I was enemy number one. People, especially the media, called me all sorts of nasty things. Racist, homophobe, evil, everything under the sun.
It bummed me out, man. I can’t imagine how Matt felt.”
“Well, don’t you think having your name associated with Neo-Nazis and racists and homophobes is pretty bad, right?”
He takes out a spliff from who knows where and draws in a deep breath. A large cloud of smoke escapes his lips. When he finishes, he offers it to me. I politely decline.
I wasn’t too keen on finding out what a cartoon joint would do to me.
“Nah,” he replies. “Just because some people have out there views doesn’t mean that you should deny them their fun. And I can’t be solely responsible for how my image is used.
What was that thing about allowing your audience to have the freedom to draw their own conclusions? Death of the cartoonist?”
“Roland Barthes. Death of the author.”
“Right. I’m no tyrant, man. I’m not going to force people to make me an angel.”
“What about those other people? The ADL, Hillary, and the media? Don’t they have the right to get upset?”
He brings some fingers to his chin. “You know, I never thought about it that way,” he says. “I guess they do.
If I allow people to put me in a Nazi uniform, I can’t ask people to not get upset about it.” He takes another swig of beer and appears deep in thought. “Still, they have a responsibility too.
If the ADL or Southern Poverty Law Center calls you a terrorist, you’ll be called that forever. No one in the media will ask you for your side in the story. It’s punching down, you know?”
“So what should they have done? The media, I mean?” I ask.
His eyes narrow, well, as much as cartoon frog eyes can. “Poke around a bit more before you swallow what these sources tell you. Reach out to the people who are under attack.
Perhaps be a little more empathetic?”
“We do what we can,” I say with a somewhat defensive tone. “Maybe famous people should be less comfortable with having their names used by Naz-” I catch myself. “Sorry,” I mumble.
We settle into an awkward silence.
Sensing that this turn in the conversation would lead to a dead end, I ask another question. “How do you think Matt Furie is taking it?”
Pepe’s eyes grow sad. I wince inwardly. “Dad?” he says. “I feel bad for him most of all. He did this all for fun, too. Then, it just got out of control.
I think was between a rock and a pack of bloodthirsty sharks. They were certainly going to rip him a new one. I don’t blame him for killing me.”
“You know he’s trying to bring you back to life, right?”
“I know. I don’t think it’s going to work. The damage is already done. Feels bad man.” A single tear rolls down his cheek.
I shift in my seat, feeling my butt start to ache. “What about your roommates and friends? Landwolf and the others?”
He brightens up. I can’t help but feel glad for him. “I talk to them all the time! They’re doing great! I mean, things aren’t going to be the same, but the gang will never break up.”
I gaze at him with a quizzical expression.
“Ah, you’re not a toon. Things work a bit differently with us. We got a shared connection. We can reach each other across time and space. I wish you all could have the same thing.”
“Huh,” I say. “So you’re dead, but not?”
“It’s hard to explain. As long as you all keep your imaginations, we’ll be alive.”
“Then what’s all this?” I gesture around me. “What exactly is heaven and hell? Cartoon heaven and hell, I mean?”
The frog takes another long drag on his doobie. “Whatever you make of it man.”
We talk for a long time afterwards. I’m afraid I can’t write much more, as we drifted far beyond the scope of this article. It would require a book to explain.
On the elevator trip back to Earth, the beer finally reaches my bowels. They do not agree with each other. Seeing as no one else is around, I let out a big wet one. Feels good, man.