Illustrator Matt Furie discussed the meme with Esquire, saying it was never intended to become synonymous with burning crosses or white hoods or other iconography associated with white supremacy. Furie created the cartoon in the early '90s as a character in his Boy's Club comics, a figure associated with the carefree joy of early adulthood.
"It started off quite modestly," he said. "The comic itself represents that post-college zone of living by yourself with a bunch of dudes and pulling pranks on one another. The vibe of the comic is very chill and mundane and absurd."
According to Furie, Pepe the Frog's internet life began as an "inside joke."
Images of Pepe first began being disseminated online in 2008, according to Know Your Meme. In an early photo, the cartoon frog is pictured with his trademark smirk. "Feels so good, man," he said. That caption was taken from a scene in Boy's Club when one of the other characters asks him why he urinates with his "pants all the way to the ground."
The meme quickly took off, shared by everyone from posters on 4chan and Reddit to pop stars like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry. Perry tweeted an image of Pepe, eyes glassy and bloodshot, after being jet-lagged on her tour in 2014.
Furie, who said that he had nothing to do with Pepe's viral popularity, initially "looked at [the phenomenon] with amusement."
The cartoonist said that after Pepe hit the mainstream, users on 4chan, a notorious haven for internet trolls, "started flooding the internet with weird Pepe memes to ... reclaim him as their own." The idea was to "make Pepe so repugnant that no one in the mainstream would ever borrow him again," as the The Wrap explained.
"That led to people making Pepe illustrations in which he was associated with horrible things, including racism," the entertainment website concluded.
Pepe is commonly depicted as Hitler, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, or even presidential nominee Donald Trump. After the CEO announced his candidacy in 2015, the white supremacist groups backing Trump depicted him as an ever-smiling amphibian. Furie believes that's partially because the billionaire businessman "kind of looks like this smug Pepe meme."
Trump was connected to it when his son shared "The Deplorables," an ironic take on Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comment that included the Republican presidential nominee as its ringleader.
In the photo, the usual suspects of extreme right-wing conservatism are photoshopped over a poster for The Expendables, the action franchise starring Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham. Trump is pictured next to figures like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, and KKK leader David Duke. Pepe stands to Trump's right.
"I blame Trump for all of this," Furie said. "Now it's just this runaway train."
Referring to the people behind disseminating the meme as "scattered, nihilistic guys," Furie called them "anonymous internet trolls who don't stand for anything except ... getting a rise out of whatever racist or sexist or disgusting thing they can do."
"It's just an idiotic joke," he continued. "They kind of seem like this group that tried to intellectualize white power, and they've appropriated Pepe for that."
Although Pepe the Frog has been embraced by alt-right and white supremacist circles, Furie said that the political views of the character's fans on 4chan and Reddit do not match his own. The illustrator, who lives in Los Angeles, is going Democratic in this election.
"I'm voting for Hillary for sure," he said. "I was a big fan of Bernie, but that fizzled out, so I'm all Hillary 2016."
Furie claimed that it's been surreal to see his creation become a pivotal part of the 2016 election. During a rally August 25, Clinton discussed what she claimed are the sexist, racist, and Islamophobic ideas that "make up the key tenets of the emerging ... ideology known as the alt-right." During her address, someone yelled "Pepe!" from the audience.
"It's funny that it's become part of the national debate," Furie said. "It's really weird."