Writer: Pornsak Pichetshote
Artists: Jeff Stokely, Craig Taillefer, Javier Rodríguez
Color Artist: Miquel Muerto
Letterer: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Reviewed By Steve J. Ray
The Sandman Universe: Dead Boy Detectives -Collected Edition is finally here, and Charles and Edwin are back! Who? You may ask. Worry not, dear reader, I’ll have you caught up before you can say, Thessaly.
Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine first appeared in the now-classic The Sandman #25 (April 1991). They were created by Neil Gaiman, Matt Wagner, and Malcolm Jones III during the brilliant “Season of Mists” story arc (Volume 4 of the Sandman graphic novels series, which is reprinted in Book Two of the lovely new set of collected editions).
This vintage tale saw Lucifer give up his throne and relinquish the key to the gates of hell. The underworld was then emptied and the dead once again roamed the Earth. Death of the Endless had a tough time rounding up the denizens of hell and both Charles and Edwin, rather than move on, decided to stay on Earth and solve supernatural crimes.
A lot more has happened in one-shots, crossovers, a mini-series, as well as in an ongoing Dead Boy Detectives series, over the years, but that’s all everyone needs to know, in a nutshell. Oh, and the characters have appeared in the HBO Max TV series Doom Patrol too.
If you’ve read The Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country, you’ll know that it ended in a cliffhanger. This issue follows on directly, making the two stories almost feel like one. Another Sandman character, the witch Thessaly, made an appearance at the end of Nightmare Country, and she plays a part in this book, too.
Eisner Award-winning writer, Pornsak Pichetshote (The Good Asian, Infidel), has woven a tale of horror and dark magic that gripped me from page one. His use of Thai folklore and legend is fascinating and engaging. His resumé speaks for itself, as he’s written Swamp Thing stories for DC, TV’s Cloak & Dagger for Marvel, and many other horror comics and books. As a writer of Thai-American heritage, his insight into Asian supernatural lore is refreshing and intriguing.
In the story we meet three Thai ghosts; Melvin, a Snake Ghost, Jai, a Hollow-Backed Ghost, and Tanya, a Mother Ghost. Having died between the 1970s and the present the three were taken care of by the Thai “Ghost Doctor”, Dom. The main antagonist in the book is a fourth ghost, the deadly Krasue. This monster is a normal human woman by day, but at night her head and spine detach and fly around the city, hunting down helpless victims. I know… right?!?
Our heroes are also attacked by a horde of mutilated ghost babies (known as the Kumanthong), who are both stomach-churning and heartbreaking. Pornsak Pichetshote’s scripts are textured and his imagination is wonderful. Dead baby ghosts are terrifying, but the fact that they may also have feelings makes them all the more tragic.
Edwin and Charles have an unorthodox relationship, and we’ve seen that. The fact that these are ghosts with feelings and emotions elevates the intensity of events and makes the characters so much more relatable.
I’m totally into this mythology. Thai culture and spiritual beliefs are brand new to me and I find them fascinating. The way the new ghosts only appear at night makes Charles and Edwin’s work harder, and the book that much more fun to read. This adds a whole extra layer of tension and drama to the proceedings.
Pichetshote’s tale is part whodunnit, part thriller, and 100% horror. The best bit is, that while every cast member is dead, they’ve all got more spark, humanity, and personality than some folks that are still alive. The script is great fun to read and every character has their own strengths and characteristics, making them fascinating to follow.
The art by Jeff Stokely and Miquel Muerto (what a great name for a color artist working on a horror book) is lovely. The characters and colors are quite bright and punchy, and even though the visuals are quite simple-looking (in a good way), this makes the grotesquery of the gore and horror that much more powerful. This story’s brand new, yet it looks and feels like it would fit in my 1990s Sandman library effortlessly. Muertos’s lovely colors make the art shine and don’t overshadow or smother the subtle line work.
From chapter two onward, the creative team is joined by inker Craig Taillefer, who does what any great inker should do; finish the penciller’s art in a way that highlights both artists’ skills, but doesn’t wash away the penciller’s style. Yes, the visuals in this book are fairly cartoony in style, but the skill is in the storytelling, the characters’ faces, and the deep, rich backgrounds.
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou had already impressed me with his excellent work on Sword Of Azrael, so I knew the lettering on this book would be great too. Yay, me… I was right! His ghost text, sound effects, and chapter headings are simply gorgeous. From little notepads showing us what the characters are thinking (nope I really don’t miss thought bubbles at all), to ghostly dream speak, and big loud, almost manga-style arguments between the characters. All of his work is stellar.
We have a guest artist drawing all but the final page of chapter four, the brilliant Javier Rodríguez. I’ve been following this artist’s work since the late 90s when he worked for the publisher Ediciones La Cúpula. He was one of many artists working on the wild and whacky title El Víbora, published in my native country of Spain between 1979 and 2005. American comics fans may primarily know him as a color artist, from titles such as Batgirl: Year One for DC, but this guy can draw! His work on this chapter is lovely, and I would dearly love to see even more of his art across DC in months and years to come.
This book raises so many fascinating questions. If ghosts are already dead, how can they be “killed”? Pornsak Pichetshote’s written one hell of a tale, not just because of the haunted goings on, but also because of all the wonderful semi-autobiographical touches he adds, due to being a Thai-American. Honestly, this book is great.
The Sandman Universe: Dead Boy Detectives isn’t just a horror story either, as we also get some amazing social commentary. Shootings in schools, bullying, racism; all these topics are handled in this book. The best thing is that Pichetshote’s not smacking us around the head with politics, he’s doing what all the best writers do and uses fiction to hold a cautionary mirror over fact. Why is it only children who seem to be capable of learning and wanting change? Have all adults truly just given up?
The fascinating glimpse into ghosts from across the globe, the re-introduction of three favorite characters from Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman series, and the horror and humor they all bring have been an absolute delight. I know that’s a weird thing to say about a horror comic, but it’s true.
None. Whether you only know Charles and Edwin from this book, or if you’ve followed their adventures for decades, writer Pornsak Pichetshote has you covered. With every chapter, we learn more about our heroes.
I’ve learned about new mythologies, felt scared, laughed, and had my heart broken. As a lifelong comics fan, this is the kind of series that proves the validity and power of the medium. It still upsets me when people put comics down, particularly when there are great stories like Dead Boy Detectives on the shelves.
The entire Sandman Universe has always been built on diversity and representation; both in its cast of characters and in the depth of stories it’s always told. The creative team behind Dead Boy Detectives is honoring that legacy and building on it beautifully.
Sandman Universe: Dead Boy Detectives delivers everything I love about comics. Great characters, next-level threats, humor, scares, and thrills. The fact that it also educates while it entertains is a huge bonus. While this is a brilliant horror story, it also sheds light on life, love, and the problems faced by the children of immigrants.
This terrific book collects all six issues. It also presents the main and standard variant covers before each chapter, and has a nine-page gallery with all the other variant covers at the back of the book. For anyone wanting to know or read more about The Sandman Universe, there’s also a four-page reading guide.
Released on Nov 07, 2023
Review Copy Courtesy of Penguin Random House. Images Courtesy of DC Entertainment.