In the beginning, he was just a cartoon dog in a burning house, apathetic about his dire predicament. “This is fine,” he said, to no one in particular.
Stressed college kids, an irked congressman, dispirited crypto bros and disillusioned Christian bloggers have all seen themselves or their situations in the dog. Wearing his tidy little hat and staring at his sad little coffee cup, he has become the internet’s patron saint of denial, a hero of helpless resignation.
Green’s original comic, published on Jan. 9, 2013, extends for four more panels that are usually not included in the meme, and it ends with the dog incinerated. Over the years, though, Green, 35, has become more interested in how the dog — a character from his comic series “Gunshow,” known as Question Hound — might find a happier ending.
He appreciates new versions of the comic that suggest “growing from this anxiety, coming together, and not feeling totally helpless,” he said a little after the 10th anniversary of the comic’s publication.
In these iterations, his furry friend has some measure of agency — suggesting we do, too.
In one version that circulated after Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, a firefighter carries the dog out of thick gray smoke. In a lo-fi video game version, Question Hound is armed with a fire extinguisher. In yet another parody, he never gets himself into the whole flaming fiasco in the first place. Instead, he’s surrounded by potted plants. “Fine,” indeed.
Green made the comic while he was struggling to adjust to antidepressants, and over the past decade, it has been invoked to capture such disparate woes as the pain of eating flaming hot Cheetos and the cost-of-living crisis. Early on, it was used most often to capture personal struggles, but through years of pandemic, climate change and other strife, its success has become a symptom of a broader sense that “we are watching something crumble,” Green says.
After the 2016 election, Green drew his own alternative, in which the dog screams, “This is not fine” and puts out the fire. “What I never really saw in the [original use of the] meme was growing from the problems we’re dealing with,” he said.
This has stuck with Green as the image’s popularity spikes with fresh crises. He sells meme merchandise and does related projects to support his other work, but it can feel strange to build a career on an image of helplessness, Green said. “The meme stays the same, but what people get out of it is a little bit different every year,” he said. “Ain’t that unfortunate.”
Once, “the house burning may have just been your final exams,” he said, referring to an early popular usage of the meme. “Now, it’s feeling like it’s the world, it’s your country.”
But it’s not that society has descended into permanent mayhem. If we once faced the flames when we turned on the TV news at night, the ever-present nature of the internet has made many of us residents in the burning house.
“As we become more online, the veil is lifted,” Green said. “We see all the crazy stuff people do and say.”
And there’s no buffer between whatever nonsense Twitter just fed you and the banal demands of life. “You have to just be like, ‘Well, now I know that, and I still have to pick up my daughter from ballet,’” Green said.
That is the surreal feeling the comic most poignantly captures. Driving to work under a violent orange sky as wildfires burn in the distance. Stopping at the grocery store to buy milk, mid-insurrection. Walking your dog to the tune of blaring ambulances at the height of covid.
This is fine, we tell ourselves to get by. This is fine, we say when we know it most definitely is not.
And yet, there is something comforting about having an image to return to in helpless moments, Green said — as if by empathizing with a cartoon dog, we are all exhaling together.
“For me, it was my feelings about getting my medication right. For some kids, it was about finals. For some, it was about Trump getting elected. For some, it was about covid,” he said.
“It’s kind of nice. It creates a kind of community.”