Review by: Geoff Arbuckle
Some 16-17 years ago, I wanted to create a comic called Slackerville. It was a reflection of my 20s. It was hyper-realized versions of me and my friends. Ultimately, it was meant to be a finite story of a group of people coming of age in their own ways. They started out as these slackers and immature douchebags before eventually growing into people who have all had some sort of story arc. It would have been rich in irreverence (something I still have not let go of in my own creative outlets), and it would encapsulate all the best elements of character-driven plots and arcs seen in shows like Mission Hill, Futurama, and the very best years of The Simpsons.
Feels Good, Man follows the tale of Matt Furie and his infamous creation, Pepe the Frog. Matt, a long time cartoonist, more or less grew up fascinated by frogs. He eventually created Pepe and, through a series of events over time, a comic called Boy’s Club. Boy’s Club was a story of four “guys” with distinct personalities in a post-college fog. It didn’t necessarily have a character arc or reflect much of a coming of age plot, but simply that funk a lot of guys have in their 20s. The comic turned into a huge underground hit.
The title, “Feels Good, Man”, comes from an individual frame of an individual Boy’s Club strip. It was meant to imply that while it seems odd to pull your pants and underwear all the way to the floor as an adult to take a piss, Pepe doesn’t really care because it simply feels good… man. After uploading the strip to MySpace, soon, Furie and others started noticed that the line “Feels Good Man” would start showing up on memes and posts by others. It started with images of before and after comparisons of men who started lifting weights and changing themselves. Before long, 4chan memes were popping up everywhere because being weird is something the inhabitants on the site could finally take some pride in – and they could simply feel good even if others didn’t understand their weirdness. Furie was advised to lawyer up to protect Pepe, but he refused because he mostly felt that, as an artist (and a bit of a super naive stoner) he didn’t want to sue other creators. Ultimately, he probably should have lawyered up.
Feels Good, Man explores not just an artist, but a character, an underground comic, a subculture who co-opted the character, and that subculture’s use to help get a man elected to the most powerful office in the world. Director Arthur Jones does a marvelous job interweaving these disparate ideas into the documentary. Jones also does a great job of explaining complex ideas in a way that is enough for the point of the overall story being told. For example, I have been aware of Pepe for a good handful of years. I didn’t know much about Furie, outside that he didn’t create the character in the way it has been used. I’ve heard of 4chan, but didn’t know much about it. As a giant nerd, I know a thing or two about weirdos. So learning more about how 4chan expanded and became a lifestyle to these people who all live these lives anonymously through this site was interesting because it all makes a modicum of sense to me.
These 90 or so minutes document the bizarre story of a simple drawing and the creator who loved it, and the people who loved it in a toxic way. In the first 30 minutes, you feel things you wouldn’t expect. On one hand, you have to ask questions about the way Furie lives and how disconnected and naive he seems from the reality of what his creation has come to mean. On another hand, you feel for these people who are shut off and have these issues that prevent them from living a life outside their parents’ homes. On yet another hand, you begin to see the complexity of these angry people. And then on the last hand, as it really begins to turn sour, you hate how all these shitposting losers are left to fester in this world and how they tend to undermine the way the world and society works in very nefarious ways.
Say what you will, I do understand the need to call bullshit when something you care about suddenly feels co-opted by a famous person or a corporation. That is part of the story of the 4chan people who co-opted Pepe as their own symbol. You wonder if that famous person is posting that long screed about Black Lives Matter or any number of other hot button topics for personal attention or less-than-altruistic reasons. You wonder if every board member of every corporation who change their Facebook profile pictures to something rainbow colored during Pride Month is anything other than a specifically calculated signal to the masses. But, then, when you calm down a bit, you do then realize that these outsiders to your cause or lifestyle are useful in helping others see the world the way you do. I say this because you learn about how Pepe was perverted into a terrible weapon against the “normies” who tried to horn in on “their” thing. You realize how utterly vapid and selfish those people are, and how they don’t want their symbol to spread by those outside their small bubbles because that small bubble makes THEM feel special in some twisted way. You feel as though only ONE person should be that protective of his mascot, and, yet, these man-children living in their parents’ basements (literally – I’m not being facetious in this claim) weaponize an otherwise innocent character. It’s insane – and I haven’t even brought up the connection to the Trump campaign and how they used it to propel the Pepe fans into political, and social, action, the idea of making the internet reality, and the creation of the fictional nation of Kekistan.
But Feels Good, Man is also supremely interesting. This is a twisting and winding road that makes you nostalgic for a much simpler time before things started getting cloudy in a social landscape that feels like every single piece of the world has become political or turned into a “us vs. them” stance. There are so many questions regarding Furie’s personality that you could ask, but he’s honestly pure. In the 4chan circles, you realize how easy it is to weaponize a person who struggles to fit into and understand the world around him. You find yourself so angry over the idea of this thing being stolen and turned into such a hateful icon. Then you see a happy ending beginning to emerge in a far away place – and an inner peace that starts to emerge within the creator himself.
Furie’s ultimate conclusion simply “Feels Good, Man.”
I brought up Slackerville at the start of this review because… Well, I wonder if I had gotten to do what I wanted with that, would anything there be a meme today? Irreverence and plain old bad jokes are separated by the thinnest of lines that is drawn by intelligence and humility. Would I be so naive to think that if something I created got memed it would simply go away and return to its original form? Would I be able to stand against 160,000,000 memes shared online in a single year to win the fight to get the creation back? How would I feel if I heard someone in a political party I DO NOT agree with tell me my creation is not mine anymore and I should just get over it because it now belongs to this ideology I hate? If Richard Spencer wore a pin of one of my characters, would I punch him? (Yes. Yes, I would.) These are all things that make an appearance in this film and should stand as a cautionary tale for anyone who wishes to create anything.