Letting go is next to impossible on the internet. This month, Tim Buckley returned to an infamous, four-panel comic from his series Ctrl+Alt+Del (CAD) with the intention of shaking its notoriety. In the strip, the lead male character, Ethan, rushes to his girlfriend Lilah's bedside after she suffers a miscarriage. Hovering behind her, Ethan finds himself without words, and distraught over how to handle the situation.
Or that's how it once played out, until Buckley changed the ending on the comic's 10th anniversary.
Published June 2, 2008, the comic, appropriately titled "Loss," was immediately mocked by both fans and critics of the series. CAD was a regular target of webcomic readers; people routinely called out Buckley's art style as lazy, and knocked it for feeling like a ripoff of Penny Arcade's ongoing comic. "Loss," however, was so bizarrely out of step with the tone of the comic that, for many, it became impossible not to mock despite a sensitive subject. Select All's Brian Feldman best summed up the reaction a couple of years ago, writing:
It was like Carrot Top remade Sophie's Choice. The last strip to mention Lilah's pregnancy prior to "Loss" had been published 10 installments and nearly a month prior, and readers found the sudden attempt at gravity hilarious. So they did what the internet does: turned "Loss" — again, a comic strip about miscarriage — into a running joke. One that still continues to this day.
Tim Buckley's original "Loss" comic.Ctrl+Alt+Del
"Loss," inspired by an event in Buckley's own life, according to a blog post he published alongside the comic, became a menacing, mocking meme embraced by 4chan's most imaginative trolls and shared across certain corners of the internet. Buckley told Select All in 2015 that he couldn't anticipate what ended up happening to "Loss," but acknowledges that it was a tough, creative decision he ultimately felt compelled to make.
"I knew it was going to cause some ripples, and it was going to be a busy email day, but honestly by the time that specific comic went live, it was a decision that I had been living with for over a year," Buckley said.
After publishing, the four-panel comic took on a life of its own, remaining a popular meme today. The original context was lost for newcomers to the comic, who saw a distressing scene being turned into a complete mockery by the internet. Any original intentions Buckley had going into the comic were lost. "Loss" was no longer one of Tim Buckley's comics, but instead, the disposable, remixable property of the internet.
Buckley never really addressed the memeification of his work outside a couple of interviews here and there until this month, when he swapped "Loss" with a new comic: "Found." Everything about the new strip is the same except for the last panel. Instead of joining his girlfriend in grieving the loss of their child, Ethan grins lecherously at the reader. The comic breaks the fourth wall to get one simple message across: I see you.
Ethan in "Found."Tim Buckley
After all these years, Buckley found a way to scream "I can play too!" at all the people who mocked his comic. As he told Select All in 2015, his attitude toward people's reception of his comic had changed over the years, and he eventually found it flattering.
Buckley's reaction to them has varied over the years, from anger "because perhaps I had miscalculated my demographic's ability/willingness to approach such a sensitive subject matter" to frustration for "CAD" being pigeonholed as wacky gamer comic. And on very rare occasions, "As much as I hate to admit it because I certainly don't want to make light of the subject matter itself, I found them quite amusing." Now he says that he's flattered that something he made has been entertaining people for more than seven years.
Buckley's winking acknowledgement of "Loss" meme culture led to his own joking take on the situation. Whether it works is debatable. "Found" isn't mocking "Loss" so much as replacing it. The alternate comic was only made available for one day on June 2, but Buckley went out of his way to take down the original. Instead of a meme referencing a meme, it comes across as cold creepy commentary on a man's reaction to his girlfriend miscarrying. Why he might do this comes through in his big Select All sit-down: "Why fight what makes people happy when you can just join in?"
"Found" is Buckley's way of dealing with a lack of ownership over what his comic has become. There is something unnervingly macabre about the internet's giddy response to mock a miscarriage, turning and twisting the joke until it's completely divorced from the original intention, but it's not unusual. Once something is posted online, there isn't much an artist can do to reclaim their creations as their own. Fair Use laws allow people to remix and recreate original artwork to share on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit or anywhere else imaginable.
Buckley's not the only artist dealing with these issues, but his approach to acknowledging and trying to move past his comic's legacy is notable — especially when compared to Matt Furie's own experience.
Furie is the famous creator of Pepe the Frog, an innocent comic character who was co-opted over the last half-decade as a symbol of white supremacy and alt-right politics. Furie is vocal in his dismay and contempt for what Pepe the Frog has become. He penned an opinion piece for Time magazine in October 2016 discussing the absolute "nightmare" Pepe's existence has become, and his tireless fight to reclaim Pepe the Frog as the character was originally intended.
"It's completely insane that Pepe has been labeled a symbol of hate, and that racists and anti-Semites are using a once peaceful frog-dude from my comic book as an icon of hate," Furie wrote. "It's a nightmare, and the only thing I can do is see this as an opportunity to speak out against hate."
Furie ended his opinion piece by admitting that Pepe the Frog's legacy was out of his control. He could reiterate over and over again that Pepe is a sign of love, an in-joke for comic book readers who understand Pepe's original intentions, but that could never change the hate symbol he's become in part. A hate group co-opted him, and the internet demonized Pepe the Frog.
"The problem with Pepe is that he's been stamped a hate symbol by politicians, hate groups, institutions, the media and, because of them, your mom," Furie wrote. "Before he got wrapped up in politics, Pepe was an inside-joke and a symbol for feeling sad or feeling good and many things in between. I understand that it's out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love."
Furie has since tried to issue copyright takedowns over use of Pepe the Frog, but to little success. Fair Use allows for radical Pepe versions to exist without compromising Furie's original drawing. It's the internet's double-edged sword for creators. They can publish their work online, but if an image is discovered, embraced, changed, mutilated, and reborn as something completely different, they can't control that outcome.
Fantagraphics Books, the company behind Furie's Pepe the Frog comic, issued a statement to that effect, asking people to remember that despite Pepe's alt-right radicalization, he's not an image of hate.
"Having your creation appropriated without consent is never something an artist wants to suffer, but having it done in the service of such repellent hatred — and thereby dragging your name into the conversation, as well — makes it considerably more troubling," the statement reads.
Pepe the Frog's funeral. Matt Furie
Nothing worked for Furie — not even killing off Pepe the Frog in his own comic. Furie wanted to literally bury the version of Pepe the Frog the internet embraced, hated and shared without abandon, but that didn't stop people from using Pepe's imagery. It did, however, give Furie a voice again, conveying his hatred for people's abuse of the character through the comic that birthed Pepe in the first place.
It's a tactic that other creators often consider when their drawing morphs into something unrecognizable. Brad Kim, Know Your Meme's editor-in-chief, spoke to Polygon about art ownership on the internet during the explosion of Ugandan Knuckles. The deeply problematic, oftentimes racist meme combined an early drawing of a deformed Knuckles from the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise with references to a Ugandan movie called Who Killed Captain Alex? The meme quickly became infused with racist taunts and vile phrases. Kim told Polygon that until the drawing's original creator, Gregzilla, condemned the art and killed the character, Ugandan Knuckles would only spread.
"Moderation of the community that cause more reactionary detriments, and that will lead to attempting an effort at keeping this meme going," Kim said. "Ugandan Knuckles will continue to rise until the makers of the meme put a kiss of death on it."
Ugandan Knuckles, Pepe the Frog and "Loss" all have one thing in common: the creator's art was morphed into something they had no control over. They can either buy into the meme, like Gregzilla did with Ugandan Knuckles and Buckley did through "Found," or they can effectively try to kill it over and over again, like Furie attempted. Either way, the result is the same: people are still going to make jokes, and the artist has to come to terms with losing any ownership they assumed came with their creations.
Art on the internet is the Wild Wild West; it barrels into something completely unrecognizable, drifting from one town to the next, until someone finally stands up and tries to kill it. The idea and legacy behind that drifter, however, never truly dies. It's what they're remembered for that lingers eternally.