Well before the Moo Pa football team emerged from the Tham Luang caves, they were cartoon heroes.
As the world waited for news of the boys’ rescue, Thai cartoonists began posting sketches of the boys on social media, where they were shared, liked and commented on thousands of times.
One cartoon shows the boys standing on a rock cheering as divers dressed in superhero gear dive and abseil to their rescue, another shows divers trying to reach them, clambering through tunnels that spell out the word “hope”. Another shows the boys as small boars – after their football team the Wild Boars – being held close and protected by their coach.
These distinctive, hopeful, sometimes highly symbolic but often very sentimental cartoons became the primary art form of the rescue.
One of the most widely shared image – which even features on a Thai billboard – was created by Aruni Aunhawarakorn and Jantima Manasviyoungkul, who draw together under the pen name SISIDEA.
Their cartoon depicts the boys as wild boars, swimming happily out of the cave surrounded by other animals – there is a kangaroo for the Australian team, seals for the Thai nay Seals, even an Iron Man mask for Elon Musk – all of them led by Narongsak Osatanakorn who coordinated the rescue mission, depicted as a white elephant wearing glasses and Narongsak’s trademark blue cap and yellow scarf.
Aruni and Jantima posted the image after the first group of boys had been brought out of the cave.
“Our pen couldn’t start to work until the first wild boar was successfully rescued from the cave,” they wrote. “We were so worried and prayed for them. This picture is to cheer them up and show the appreciation of Thai people for the collaborations from many people around the world.”
They shared with the Guardian an annotated version of the most recent version of the cartoon, which now also has a Canadian beaver, a French rooster and Danish swan, among other additions.
For them, using animal symbolism was a way to use a light touch when dealing with heavy subject matter.
“We think this situation is quite serious for everyone, so we are representing using animal symbols to bring a smile and be more relaxed,” they wrote.
‘We’re talking about children in peril’
Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, professor of film at the university of Lincoln, says using animals is “quite clever” for a situation of uncertainty like the rescue. “You don’t want to make it individual … you’re not talking about real politik, you’re talking about all these lovely animals coming to the rescue, it takes the edge off, it makes things less real.”
Hemelryk Donald is not surprised the cartoons had a cutesy, sentimentalised aesthetic. “There’s a very strong connection between Japanese kawaii [culture of cuteness] and the rest of south-east Asia,” she said.
She points to the way the boys are often presented in cartoons as being even younger than they actually are. “We’re talking about children in peril and adults coming in to rescue them. It’s a very paternalistic society and we have this, the narrative of the state coming to rescue the boys … it was very much a national effort and it’s done the Thai royalty no harm at all and the Thai government no harm at all.”
Pazut Wutigornsombatkul, a cartoonist and photographer living in Bangkok, drawing under the name of his studio Tuagom Studio, is one of those who drew the boys, in his usual bubble-headed style, looking very young as they were accompanied out of the cave by divers. His aim, he says, was to bring some calm in a stressful situation.
“When I first got the news, I really felt that many people were starting to panic and stress. So my first idea is I wanted to make people relaxed and feel happy, so I started to draw,” he says.
“Sometimes photography makes [things] more real and also stressed,” he says, adding that cartoons have the power to bring hope and calm people.
Hemelryk Donald says she is also not surprised that very few of the cartoons – with the notable exception of a cartoon in the Thai newspaper the Nation contrasting the stoicism of the boys with Brazilian footballer Neymar – attempt to be funny.
“I think it would’ve been quite dangerous to make too many funny cartoons about children being rescued … If you’re going to make a cartoon funny you need to laugh at someone, but who are you going to laugh at in this situation? Neymar you can laugh at.” Instead, she says, these cartoons are about “telling a story in a sharable way, a way that people can hook onto”.