The Six-Year Struggle to Regain Ownership of the ‘This Is Fine’ Dog
Two panels from KC Green’s “On Fire.” Photo: KC Green
It’s taken for granted that a meme, once set free, will never return to the cage of copyright and creator control. You make something, it gets popular without credit, and you watch it slip through your grasp. Take, for example, Pepe the Frog. The character was first conceived by cartoonist Matt Furie for his ongoing comics series Boy’s Club, but its visage, for whatever reason, started being used by members of various online forums, then became popular on 4chan, then became a leading icon of the alt-right and an Anti-Defamation League–identified hate symbol. Furie has made noble efforts to stem the tide, from symbolically killing the character off to suing Alex Jones (they settled),but the damage is mostly done. Pepe is infamous, Furie is obscure, and the connection between the two has largely been severed.
And yet, there’s a counterexample that should inspire hope for anyone whose content has been ganked for the lulz. Another cartoonist, KC Green, similarly saw one of his characters meme-ified for political purposes. The figure was initially named Question Hound but has since been dubbed the This Is Fine Dog. Across social media, we see him sitting in a burning room with a dumb smile on his face, musing to himself, “This is fine.” It’s a simple, potent image that captures the tenor of our chaotic times and the reactions of those who refuse to accept awful reality, and it’s been used far and wide. What makes Green’s story different from those of folks like Furie is that he has, astoundingly enough, been able to harness the meme’s success for profit and greater recognition, and is surprisingly renowned as its creator. He says the trick is vigilance, luck, and not being afraid to steal from your thieves.
It also didn’t hurt that Green had already learned from past mistakes. In 2006, he published a comic for his series Horribleville in which a character draws an anthropomorphic phallus and names it “Dick Butt.” The image of Dick Butt went viral in certain circles and Green quickly lost control of it. “I didn’t even try and hold on to that copyright,” Green says. “To be honest, the type of people who like using that image are the people I don’t want to talk to. I’ve actually let go of the copyright on that, so idiots can use it as much as they want.” Nevertheless, even though he conceded defeat, he’d seen what the arena looked like.
From KC Green’s Horribleville.Photo: KC Green
The success of Dick Butt didn’t enrich Green, and he simply plugged away at his comics. A subsequent series, Gunshow, came into being in 2008, and the cartoonist proceeded to build it with a haphazard creative approach. Take, for instance, the origin of the 2013 comic that spawned the “This Is Fine” meme. “I used to write a lot by just opening an empty document and typing things that popped out of my head, things that were just stuck in my head and just whatever,” Green says. “It was just random writing. I believe that document was literally just I wrote down the actual lines of ‘This is fine. I’m completely okay with all of this.’ Then someone’s face slops off because they’re in a burning place, or whatever. That was all it took for me to write down an idea. Then, I was like, That’s good enough. Let’s use it.” Today, he looks back and suspects the origin of the comic had something to do with his then-recent adjustment to taking antidepressants: “It felt like things around me were … like I was ignoring the problem, basically,” he remembers. “A part of me wondered if the pill regimen would get rid of my emotions, or something like that.”
Whatever the subconscious underpinnings of that freewriting were, Green translated them into an efficient six-panel comic, entitled “On Fire,” which he published on January 9, 2013. He chose to have the strip star Question Hound, the series’s unofficial mascot since the very first strip of Gunshow, who was based on a cartoon dog that Green used to doodle as a kid. Green often used the hapless canine as a stand-in for himself, so it only made sense to have him feature in this tossed-off exploration of placidity in the face of disaster.
The first two panels of “On Fire” are the most famous: We see the dog among the flames, sitting silently, then we see him in close-up, saying his now-trademark line. After that, he continues: “I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently.” He takes a sip from his mug and his arm catches on fire. “That’s okay, things are going to be okay,” he says as he looks at the limb. Finally, his face melts off. The end. Green says he doesn’t really check web analytics or social metrics, so he didn’t have any idea whether the comic was popular: “I was happy that it was there,” he says, “but it was also like, I’m on a schedule. That was Wednesday’s comic. Time to work on Friday’s.” He moved on.
“On Fire.” Photo: KC Green
According to the meme archaeologists at Know Your Meme, on April 26 of that same year, the famous first two panels appeared on 4chan’s sub-board for retro video games. They then spread to various Reddit boards, the social image site Imgur, and, as the months and years went on, they appeared with increasing frequency elsewhere on the web. Green didn’t much mind. It wasn’t a massive viral hit and wasn’t associated with anything particularly repugnant. He made a little money off an Adult Swim interstitial that animated the strip, and his internet-savvy fans seemed to be good at letting memers know who created the original. What was the harm?
But that all changed with the 2016 presidential campaign. During the run-up to that horrifying electoral contest, online punditry started making widespread use of Question Hound’s placid statement to describe any number of political disasters. Green continued to tolerate it, though the meme was going into uncertain waters. Then came July 25, 2016. On that day, the social-media team behind the official Republican Party Twitter account saw fit to appropriate those first two panels of “On Fire” for a tweet about the near-anarchic atmosphere during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The tweet simply copied and pasted those two panels and added the text, “Well ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ #DemsInPhilly #EnoughClinton” (the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is what the kids call a “shruggie,” an emoticon that is intended to represent a shrugging human).
Photo: KC Green
Green’s feelings crystallized in that moment: “The RNC can use it as a joke on Twitter and I’m like, ‘Oh, man. Keep my name out of your mouth,’” he recalls. Less than an hour later, Green tweeted, “Everyone is in their right to use this is fine on social media posts, but man o man I personally would like @GOP to delete their stupid post,” and soon after that, comics site the Nib tweeted an image, drawn by Green in exchange for cash, of a GOP-style elephant burning alive while muttering, “This is fine.” Within a few days, the Nib posted a comics-format cri de coeur from Green entitled “This Is Not Fine,” in which Question Hound realizes that, in fact, his house is burning down; he puts the fire out while screaming and, ultimately, sits in horror in the ashen ruins. War had been declared.
Since then, Green has been his own best advocate in the fight for his dog’s future. For example, when The Daily Show posted an edited version of the meme with the show’s watermark on the image last year, he lashed out at them directly. “They paid me to use it in the end,” he says. “I was like, ‘That’s all I want. What I want is to be respected as a cartoonist here. This isn’t a random image you can put your logo on the side of like you’re ebaumsworld.com or something.’ I did talk to them and they’re like, ‘We really want to use it.’ I was like, ‘Well, I really want you to pay me.’ That’s all it was. They paid me.”
He also never lets up in his efforts to take down other people’s attempts to monetize his work and is in constant dialogue with his readers. “I definitely have really good fans looking out for me, to the point where I get emails maybe once a month about, ‘Hey, someone’s selling This Is Fine on Etsy’ and I’m like, Well, I guess I’ll also write that down.” He issues takedown requests at user-generated e-commerce sites like Etsy and Redbubble all the time. “I’ve done it enough that it’s like, ‘You guys should maybe know this by now. Do you guys not check that shit unless someone complains?’ The answer is probably, ‘Yes,’ which, I guess, I get it, because it’s a big store, but it’s still kind of lame that I have to keep doing this.” Nevertheless, he does do it and has been effective at keeping the bootlegging from getting out of control. He also harnessed his folk-hero status to launch a massively successful Kickstarter for a Question Hound plush toy — it aimed to raise $35,000 and ended up drawing $454,717. Not bad for a meme.
But most of all, Green has stolen from the people who stole from him. “I can write to Redbubble, or Etsy, or any other place, to ask them to take something down, but I think the best way to try and take it back yourself is to steal other people’s ideas,” he says with a laugh. “Like, Oh, they wanted a tote bag with this on it? Then I’ll make a tote bag with that on it. I’ll stop them. Like, they want a shirt print with just the two panels on it, so they go to Etsy to make a dumb version of the print. Then here” — that is, on his site and on his store at creator-friendly merch site TopatoCo — “we offer a print with just the two panels, or we offer a shirt with just the two panels, because that’s all people fucking want.” Turnabout’s fair play, after all.
When I ask Green what advice he’d offer to another cartoonist whose work has been stolen for viral fame, he pauses for a moment, then says, “Don’t let that one joke be the one thing that you really try to …” and trails off. He picks up again: “Make a stink and try not to let it keep you from continuing working, continuing to make something better than the thing people think is going to be your magnum opus. Don’t overwork yourself because of a meme joke, because people will take it and do whatever they want with it, with or without your permission, because that’s just kind of how it works online. It’s a tough balancing act. There’s no easy answer for that.”
The one thing that he does have an easy answer for is the question of whether creator rights should be respected in the age of the viral joke. “‘Information wants to be free. Jokes want to be free.’ Is that what people are trying to say? That’s so stupid,” he says. “That’s some horseshit thinking, to be honest. The fact that comics and humor like that permeate our culture does make a difference. Then, when people want to stop it or be like, ‘Actually, it’s just a joke, it’s not that big a deal,’ I go, ‘You made a big deal out of it first and now it’s not a big deal? You’re just gaslighting the person who was just trying to keep their IP, or whatever, trying to keep their work.’ It’s frustrating. It’s so goddamn frustrating.” He pauses for a second. “Humor is a big, important tool, that no one takes seriously,” he adds. “They always say, ‘It’s just a joke,’ but jokes got fucking Donald Trump in office. I don’t know what to fucking say to that, other than, ‘Shut up.’”
*A version of this article appears in the July 8, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
This is fine does not mean this is fine — not on social media.
The three-word phrase now doubles as shorthand for when a situation becomes so terrible our brains refuse to grapple with its severity. An oil spill has covered the Gulf of Mexico? This is fine. The polar ice sheets are melting faster than ever? This is fine. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States of America? This, too, is fine.
The new alt definition comes from a 2013 webcomic called "On Fire." In the six panels, a dog wearing a hat sits at a kitchen table. The room is engulfed in flame, but the dog smiles and says, "This is fine." The dog calmly lifts a coffee mug to its lips. "I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently," says the dog, taking a gulp from the mug. Its arm incinerates into red gore. "That’s okay," says the dog. "Things are going to be okay." And then the dog's face melts like one of the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The first two panels are above, but here's the full strip, courtesy its creator, artist KC Green:
The comic is part of Green’s long-running series Gunshow, but like many of Green's other successful creations, including "Dick Butt" and "Staredad," "This Is Fine" has achieved mainstream popularity as a meme.
According to Know Your Meme, the first two panels — the dog saying "This is fine" while surrounded by fire — were posted on Reddit and Imgur in 2014, where they received thousands of upvotes. Since then, the two panels have become a popular meme. In January of this year, Adult Swim animated the entire comic as a channel identification interstitial.
"This Is Fine" is unique as a meme for two reasons. One, while sometimes modified, it's most commonly used in an unaltered state. On Twitter, for example, someone might write some troubling news and attach the image. Second, it’s still climbing in popularity and usage, despite now being nearly two years old.
To unravel what gives "This Is Fine" both relatable and timeless qualities, we spoke with its creator.
Chris Plante: What inspired "On Fire"?
KC Green: This was in 2013. I think I was still struggling with myself — with getting my anti-depressants and stuff right. You know, every now and then you have these off days where shit is worse, but you’re trying to ignore it. It’s just a feeling you have. I wrote this comic and that was all there was to it.
Do you remember a moment when it came back into your life?
This isn’t anything new, but it’s the first in awhile since "Dick Butt" that’s gotten as big as it has. I [first] saw the two top panels shared somewhere on Twitter or Facebook. [The post] said, "What finals are like" — everyone was going through finals at the time in college or whatever. And it was just "This Is Fine," and that was it. And it just kept going from there. [Laughs]
Why has it become so popular?
Because it’s a feeling we all have, apparently. It’s a feeling we all get of, just like, "Things are burning down around me, but you got to have smile sometimes." It’s a basic human [feeling], "Well, what are you going to do?"
Why do you think meme is only the first two panels and not the full comic?
Brevity. Just quick memes. That’s all people want. And that’s all that some of them have seen. I was actually in Seattle two weeks ago for a comic show, and I decided, alright, I’ll print out some prints of this one, and I made "Dick Butt" stickers. I put them all together. Everyone recognizes it and says, "I’ve only seen the top two panels. Oh my gosh, there’s more to this comic." I had some kid come up and shout, "Memes! Look at all the memes!"
Is it weird or difficult that, at its most popular, your creation is essentially freely available?
It’s just the webcomic model that we’ve all sort of figured out over the years — "we" meaning other webcomic artists. I have a store through TopatoCo where we sell prints of this comic. I make shirts and stuff. I basically try to monopolize this one image, because, hey, if people want it, I could use it. I sell books of all my work. I have Patreon. There’s always a lot of different things that help me make a living off of what I do. Plus I do a lot of freelance here and there. Sometimes Adult Swim comes up to you and says, "Can we animate 'This is Fine'?"
It was last year when they contacted me, and I said absolutely. We did 10 total based off different Gunshow comics since they wanted "This is Fine." That one came out first, and we got Dana Snyder, voice of Master Shake, to do the voice.
What sort of money is made off of a meme? Could "This Is Fine," for example, pay for a year of your life?
Well the Adult Swim thing was nice. It wasn’t just "This Is Fine," but "This is Fine" helped it. I don’t know if it paid for a year of my life, but it did help for awhile, especially around tax time. I split that with the animator, Shmorky, who animated all of the stuff. The shirt is actually selling super well, I will say that. We made a brown version and then a black version. I don’t know figures off the top of my head, but it’s sold a lot. The prints went really well at Emerald City [Comic-Con]. We have mugs and stuff, too, with the image on there. Like if I wanted to, yeah, it probably could if I pushed it more, but I’m still making comics of my own. I’m still drawing and making new stories. I’m more focused on that. And the money just comes from various places. I’m making a fine living off it. Not great. I’m not super rich, or anything, if that’s what it’s coming to.
You’re able to keep doing it.
Yeah, I’m able to keep at where I’m at.
Is it possible "This Is Fine" has endured, because it's like our generation’s "Hang in there" poster?
[Laughs] Yeah, it has a similar feeling, like just hang in there, we’re almost to Friday.
Maybe that’s why the two panels are popular. There's still hope.
That’s what I’ve wondered. He doesn’t melt — and it is kind of grotesque at the end. It’s easier to sell the first two than the entire panel where the dog melts into nothingness.
This Is Fine is a two-pane image of an anthropomorphicdog trying to assure himself that everything is fine, despite sitting in a room that is engulfed in flames. Taken from an issue of the webcomic series Gunshow illustrated by K.C. Green and published in early January 2013, the cartoon is typically used as a reaction image to convey a sense of self-denial or acceptance in the face of a hopeless situation.
The comic originally comes from K.C. Green's Gunshow comic #648, actually titled "The Pills Are Working" or "On Fire", originally posted January 9th, 2013. Green's drawings have been the basis of several other memes including Staredad, Dickbutt, Mother of God and I'm Okay With This. The comic, depicts a dog in a room that is burning to the ground. The dog reacts calmly, even as he slowly melts from the heat.
On April 26th, 2013, the comic's first two panels were submitted to a thread on 4chan's /vr/ (retro games) board (shown below, left). On January 10th, 2014, Redditor theonefoster submitted the first two panels to /r/funny with the title "Accurate representation of me dealing with university stress" (shown below, right).
On September 21st, user SPIDER_MAN posted these two panels onto /r/Funny. The post received over 1,400 upvotes and 40 comments. The same post also received 4,300 upvotes and 106 comments on Imgur.
GOP Commentary on 2016 DNC
On July 25th, 2016, the Republican National Committee (RNC) tweeted the two-pane reaction image via its official Twitter account @GOP as a commentary on the chaotic atmosphere of the opening day at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, accompanied by a shrug emoticon and hashtags #DemsInPhilly and #EnoughClinton.
Within the hour of @GOP's tweet, K.C. Green responded to the Republican National Committee's unauthorized use of his artwork by expressing his personal disdain towards the Republican party via Twitter (shown below).
Then on the early morning of July 26th, political cartoon website The Nib responded to @GOP's tweet with a custom rendition of the original cartoon featuring the Republican elephant in place of the cartoon dog (shown below), illustrated by K.C. Green himself and commissioned by the website for exhibition at an art gallery in the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia.
According to Matt Bors, the founder of The Nib, the commissioned artwork had already been completed by the time @GOP decided to tweet the reaction image.
“We were brainstorming some ideas for our Philly space and thought of adapting the ‘this is fine’ meme for the GOP. When we saw the GOP’s tweet going around in a pathetic attempt to be hip with memes, we saw the opportunity for a good own.”
On November 13th, 2016, a few days after the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, indie game developer Nick Kaman released a web-based 8-bit game inspired by Green's original comic for free play on his website. In the game, the player assumes the role of the beloved dog character and must use a fire extinguisher to put out the flames engulfing the house with sprays of heart.
Although the gameplay itself is simple and two-dimensional, similar to that of a visual novel, the pixel art video game tribute to "This Is Fine" Dog received more than 10,000 plays within the month. According to Kaman's production note, he decided to work on the project in "an attempt to capture how I felt and how those around me felt after the results of the 2016 election.
Senator Richard Burr's Statement
On August 1st, 2018, the ABC News Twitter feed posted a video of North Carolina Senator Richard Burr referencing the "This Is Fine" meme while discussing Russian interference in United States politics (shown below).
“Some feel that we as a society are sitting in a burning room, calmly drinking a cup of coffee, telling ourselves ‘this is fine. That’s not fine. And that’s not the case. We should no longer be talking about if the Russians attempted to interfere with American society. They’ve been doing it since the days of the Soviet Union, and they’re still doing it today.”
That day, Twitter user @davidmackau replied with an edit of the comic featuring the phrase "This is a reference to an internet meme" (shown below). That day, several news sites published articles about the reference, including Time, The Hill and Inverse.
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