The Internet is forever. It can be a dark and unforgiving place. Even the purest of intentions can spiral into horror, it seems. SF comics artist Matt Furie learned this the hard way, when his sweet anthropomorphic frog Pepe paid the ultimate price, transformed against Furie’s intentions from stoner cartoon frog to vicious alt-right icon.
Pepe emerged into the world full of hope, a lighthearted glimmer of innocence twinkling in his bulging, glassy eyes. Furie’s 2005 comic Boy’s Club was created as a portrayal of jovial college-trope fun. Pepe and his friends Andy, Bret, and Landwolf got into very low-key shenanigans and engaged in toilet humor akin to what any would associate with teenage boys.
I’m sure many can recall what became of Pepe in the following decade. Co-opted by rabid message board users as an avatar of violence, cynicism, and dissemination of racist and Islamaphobic rhetoric, he was left barely shielded by his initial purity and harmlessness. After all, he was just a little green frog whose name sounded like “peepee.”
Trump fans pounded the final nail in Pepe’s cuteness coffin—despite Furie’s Herculean efforts to rescue the lackadaisical amphibian from his toxic associations, Pepe remains shorthand for white supremacist waste. Furie even killed off his creation in an effort to quell the hateful fire, to no avail.
But does it have to be this way?
Over the past year, I’ve been witnessing a cultural phenomenon, mostly on Instagram: the resurgence of iconic cat Garfield. In stark contrast to the turn taken with Pepe, Garfield memes have been a source of joy—and sometimes even radical leftist political and activist rhetoric. (In this he joins that other orange furry figure, socialist-favorite hockey mascot Gritty.)
Garfield was first brought into the world in comic strip form on June 19, 1978. He was named after creator Jim Davis’ grandfather and is supposedly an amalgamation of all the stray cats Davis encountered on his family’s farm growing up. By all accounts, Garfield was created to simply be a fat, lazy, snarky cat with an affinity for lasagna. He lives with his owner Jon Arbuckle and John’s dog Odie, constantly throwing out witty quips to his human and terrorizing the pup.
In an interview with the Guardian, Davis said that “Garfield is everyone’s alter ego” since “we live in a time when we’re made to feel guilty about overeating, oversleeping, not exercising. Garfield not only does all that stuff but he’s cool with that. I think in a way he relieves our guilt.”
Accounts like wurflehouse, 100_percent_turbulent_garfield and garfield_vibing_to_blue_monday showcase the beloved feline being used to spread anti-Trump, anti-white supremacist, and pro-left sentiment. Some of these creators have even used their following to raise money for bail funds and Black Lives Matter organizations.
This past May, Wurfle, the master behind wurflehouse, sent around 200 “Garfuck the Police” shirts to followers who sent in proof of a donation in response to George Floyd’s murder. She told me that “memes (and other new social media forms like TikTok) are the tools for disseminating political theory now. Anything from a mainstream source seems tainted with millionaire agendas and feels so status quo.”
Even creators who don’t post politically or activist Garfield memes joined in to support Black Lives Matter. Garfields_i_found_on_ebay, an account that, as you might have guessed, reposts various Garfield item listings they find intriguing on eBay, made ACAB Garfield prints for anyone who donated $15 or more to BLM organizations or gofundmes. Wurfle also told me she is “so excited to see young people creating an entirely new culture of activism that really is so different from anything else.”
Wurfle is a 37-year-old with a full time job. On the other hand, Mercedes, the creator of mothergarfield, is a highschooler who started her account as a way to share Garfield memes with her other meme creator friends.
Both of these people may not have had any connection otherwise, but they’ve had mild Garfield obsessions since they were little that sparked their passion for their accounts. Mercedes doesn’t often post political or activist related memes, but she told me that “memes that include controversial topics are what get people talking. It is important to share opinions and facts about political and activist related topics; it will inspire people to go out of their way to look up and research about ways to help our society change for the better.
“Personally, I will let people know what I stand for because that is what most people should do; hiding your political beliefs is almost childish, because it makes it seem like you do not care about people’s basic human rights or the future of your country.”
Funnily enough, considering the context of original Garfield content, there are even instances where the original work by Instagram creators is reposted without proper attribution, causing some grief. Mercedes told me about a collaboration she did in February 2019 with cucci.bandit and chair_eating_boi. “It was a video edit that Cucci put together with Garfield getting shot by a penguin from [classic online multiplayer game] Club Penguin with the song “Murder On My Mind” by YNW Melly.
“I drew most of the Garfield art and it was such a fun process to work on. However, once we posted the video, we didn’t watermark it so someone on Twitter reposted it and captioned it with something along the lines of “Who made this?” and it went viral.” Afterwards, the creators struggled to get credited for their work, “but in the end at least some people knew who we were.”
As far as I know, Jim Davis hasn’t had any issues with Instagram creators using his curmudgeonly creation for humane messaging. While he’s said he purposefully strays from adding political references to his comics—“it’s in the rest of the newspaper. They handle it better than I ever would”—he doesn’t sound like he would be totally appalled by someone doing so. One thing I do know for sure is that Garfield as a leftist, socialist, Black Lives Matter-supporting icon is the complete antithesis of what Pepe the frog turned into. If I were Davis, I’d be pretty happy with that.
Beyond politics, all Garfield lovers I’ve encountered say they primarily look to him as a source of joy. Davis himself said, “With what’s going on in the economy, in politics, it’s awful and very depressing, so the purpose of the comics is to lighten things up, to go, ‘Hey, let’s not take ourselves so seriously, folks.'”
The ways in which Garfield can bring people joy varies from experience. Personally, seeing Garfield depicted championing leftist ideologies brings me great joy. To know that even those who don’t personally post that kind of content agree with its messaging to some extent also brings me joy. Mercedes said she believes that “everyone should have something in their lives that makes them laugh or happy on a daily basis” and her account certainly fulfills that need for many.
All of the Garfield account creators are artists in their own right, too, from Mercedes drawing Garfs on her teacher’s whiteboards to Wurfle reimagining him within the context of activism and justice. It’s stunning to see the amount of Garfield memes that have been posted and the level of talent exhibited by the people behind them. This content fuels a cycle of creativity where every creator is inspired by others.
Mercedes even told me her Garfield whiteboard art inspired a lot of people to draw little Garfields at their own schools—they would send her pictures of their drawings or post them and tag her. moments like those bring the Garfield aficionados closer: “It was such a nice little thing the Garfield community and I started and I will forever cherish those times.”
It’s hard to fully understand just what caused Pepe to be so violently and horrifically disfigured in his purpose. (I highly recommend everyone watch acclaimed recent documentary Feels Good Man for more details.) What’s clear is that individuals have a strong power to bend cartoon icons to their purposes and disseminate that version widely and quickly. In fact, not all hope is necessarily lost for our little green friend. In August of 2019 protestors in Hong Kong co-opted Pepe as a symbol of freedom and democracy.
Perhaps Pepe is looking down on the world and watching this Garfield content spread. I would hope that he understands that many still love him, and that there are other comic figures putting in the work to undo his appropriators’ mess. We must protect Garfield. We cannot allow history to repeat itself and lose another sweet cartoon boy again.