When is a frog more than just a frog? When social evolution transforms the creature from harmless comic-book character to meme fodder — and then to the amphibian avatar of the alt-right.


Arthur Jones chronicles how the Internet slowly boiled Pepe the Frog in his documentary “Feels Good Man,” which plays at this week’s True/False Film Fest. The film is Jones’ first, and the festival represents a homecoming for the director, who graduated from Jefferson City High School.


Now based in Los Angeles, Jones is especially pleased to play the film at The Blue Note, whose stage he dove from as a teenager. With a laugh, he suggested he might wear a shirt he bought decades ago at nearby shop Aardvarx for the screening.


“Feels Good Man” represents a logical creative step forward for the longtime animator and illustrator. Jones has worked for media giants ranging from The New York Times to Netflix, and created motion graphics for several documentaries. His directorial debut traces the unpredictable life cycle of images, and connects back to the conservative politics he witnessed firsthand while growing up in mid-Missouri.


“The Venn diagrams of my obsessions all lined up with this movie,” Jones said.


Pepe the Frog was drawn into the world by independent comics artist Matt Furie. The visage of the drowsy-eyed frog-man was eventually co-opted by users of message-board sites such as 4Chan and 8Chan before becoming a particularly political symbol.


Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Pepe’s image was shared online by figures such as then-candidate Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Roger Stone. Pepe’s face became an accessory for white nationalist Richard Spencer, wearing him as a pin. Online trolls featured Pepe in disturbing, explicitly racist imagery.


For Jones, who knew the character before these online distortions, watching Pepe pop into charged, sometimes hateful discourses was “surreal.” He would “gently broach the subject” with the mild-mannered Furie, only to find Pepe’s creator was largely unaware of the hubbub.


“Feels Good Man” documents Furie’s eventual reckoning with the bastardization of his brainchild, and offers insights into 21st-century quandaries surrounding creativity and community.


Drawing on the ethos of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, Furie initially felt little need to exercise control over Pepe, Jones said. He equated early memes with concert bootlegs sold in stadium parking lots.


“To this day, Matt still does not care if you’re making a funny Pepe meme. He just doesn’t want people to profit from it or use it as propaganda,” Jones said.


Furie finally intervened when he learned of an alt-right children’s book featuring Pepe.


Plenty of copy-written characters become meme material, Jones said, citing the likes of SpongeBob SquarePants. But corporate interests and cultural baggage often curtail any truly virulent uses. Furie had to choose to get involved.


“This is a story about Matt coming to terms with the fact that he does have to deal with this, and there’s not an easy solution,” Jones said. “Whatever solution he comes up with, people are probably going to find fault in it. You’re opening yourself up to ridicule and criticism.”


As audiences watch Furie navigate these dilemmas, Jones paints a parallel portrait of the users of sites such as 4Chan and 8Chan. He saw some of his former self in today’s disaffected young men.


“As I was spending time on these message boards, I feel like I understood the dialogue, the humor,” Jones said. “Some of the reactionary politics was something that I kind of recognized and understood, because it echoed back to my own teenage years.”


This degree of identification, and a desire not to amplify certain perspectives, led Jones to focus in on message-board users and ignore white supremacist leaders.


“I wanted you to be able to feel 4Chan like a living, breathing entity,” he said. “The political coalition of 4Chan basically started as an emotional coalition for 4Chan. People were feeling angry and upset and isolated and unheard. That sort of metastasized.”


Jones wants his film to be “a conversation-starter” about a “transitional” cultural moment that has put creators, concerned citizens and drifting young adults squarely in the middle.


“We all need to have a deeper intrinsic understanding of mimetics, semiotics, the way culture moves in the social-media era, and the way that we choose to filter information that we observe online,” he said.


adanielsen@columbiatribune.com


573-815-1731