When I first ran into writer Pornsak Pichetshote to talk about his latest DC Comics series The Sandman Universe: Dead Boy Detectives, he was nervous about the conversation that would come up — especially since I texted him prior that I had a lot to say after receiving an early copy of the first issue. Pichetshote and I have known each other for years in the same Thai American entertainment circles. So, when I was alerted he was penning the next Dead Boy Detectives comics surrounding Thai culture and the Thai American community, I knew I had to talk to him about it.
“Oh no,” Pichetshote said as we first greeted each other. He knew what was about to be brought up and that was where the origin of a character’s last name — Jai Sirikul. Jai is a Thai American girl who interacts with the famous dead detectives Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine as they deal with some Thai mythical ghosts.
“I remember when I [wrote it down] I was like, ‘oh, this might be a conflict of interest.’” Pichetshote laughed. “But, the thing that I love about your last name is that it’s very Thai but also short. You’re always paying attention to the word and letter count in comics, so I wanted something that sounded classically Thai but wouldn’t take up my whole balloon.”
It was an honor to have a character — despite their unknown fate — named after you, especially given the uniqueness of Thai names. Pichetshote agreed and recalled his time writing on The CW’s Arrow when the executives were able to name characters after themselves, but when it came to Pichetshote, he said it just drew too much attention.
“I know I’ve made it when I’m watching a TV show and there’s someone named Pornsak,” Pichetshote joked.
Now with Dead Boy Detectives, Pichetshote is able to bring Thai names and the culture into this universe. His pitch was simple – “what if Edwin and Charles meet these super, crazy, scary Thai ghosts and we make it horror?”
The story idea was a perfect fit with Dead Boy Detectives. The main characters themselves were dead and solved paranormal mysteries. It made the most sense to have Thai ghosts and monsters of all of the DC Universe comics.
“The thing I love about Sandman is that Neil Gaiman created this mythology that is so inclusive of everything else because the whole idea is that everything dreams — whether you’re a god or animal or human — no matter where you are,” said Pichetshote.
In Pichetshote’s six-issue arc (with visual artist Jeff Stokely), Edwin and Charles are hired to find a missing Thai American girl named Jai, who turns up dead and is now a ghost. But, not just any ghost, she’s a Thai ghost — yes, there’s a difference. She, and her fellow Thai ghost friends — Tanya and Melvin who all died in Los Angeles at different times over the past 50 years — need help from Edwin and Charles to stop an entity haunting them.
Pichetshote was excited to bring Thai horror stories into the DC comic world. In Thailand, there are plenty of ghost stories to take from. He hadn’t personally seen a ghost during his high school years in Thailand, but like most Thai American kids, he was told a bunch of childhood stories as a lesson to not do.
“The interesting thing was [I did] internet research, but it would [bring] up memories I had,” Pichetshote recalled. “It would open up what [my family and I] would talk about all the time. So it’s a little bit of the research that brought out the [memories] from my childhood.”
There are over 50 types of Thai ghosts in horror stories and warning tales in Thailand. Pichetshote really got to play around with them. In the story, we see a ghost who is covered with termites (Phi Pluak), a snake-like ghost (Phi Ngu), and a different form of Mae Nak — a ghost who can extend their bodies. He says to expect more as the story continues.
Pichetshote found it refreshing to write a variety of Thai characters, whereas in other stories the one Asian character had to represent “all Asians.” It actually brought him closer to his roots — or at least the perspectives he’s forgotten about as a Thai American. Jai, Melvin, and Tanya are all Thai American, but from different points in time living in Los Angeles. Jai is from the current times, while Tanya is from the ‘90s, and Melvin from the ‘70s.
“I definitely relived what that experience was [growing up in America as a Thai American,” he described. “I wanted to talk about what growing up/ Thai American is like across 50 years with each kid coming from different decades. This is what it’s like in the ‘70s where people didn’t know what [Thai people] were and then went on in the ‘90s where people had a better idea but it was still vague.”
Audiences will get a taste of Thai culture in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest Thai populations outside of Thailand. The Thai temple, located in Thai Town, is shown in a scene along with relics based on Thai lore. But Pichetshote says the main focus will be the ghosts and their experiences and how they relate to being American, something many immigrants and children of immigrants can relate to.
“This is the case for Asian Americans, in general,” he explained. “They’re trying to figure out where they sit along that spectrum — how American are they? How Thai are they? How American are they allowed to be? How Thai are they allowed to be? Because I think that’s a question for all these characters.”
With two issues already out, Pichetshote is excited for audiences to learn more about Thai folklore and the experiences many Thai Americans dealt with regarding their identity. It also is interesting for Edwin and Charles as they also are dealing with their own existential crisis — after being dead for over 30 years — when they learn about other kinds of black magic and Thai voodoo.
Pichetshote promises he’s faithful to the cultural background of Thai mythology, but also with the Sandman universe. Although for many Thais, death isn’t the end in the afterlife, Pichetshote doesn’t go too deep into the idea of rebirth.
“The lore is that death comes for everyone and death takes you where you go after — and it might be a different thing [for everyone],” he explained. “We’ll find this as we go. The characters and the rules are a bit of uncharted territory. Right now, things seem to be changing. Charles and Edwin don’t know why. So there’s a bit of wiggle room there.”
Whatever the case is, Pichetshote says that all will be explained by the end of the series. He’s looking forward to the journey readers will take. All I told him before we separated from our meeting was that Jai Sirikul better survive in the end.
“I’m not guaranteeing anything,” Pichetshote declared. “I’m not even guaranteeing Edwin or Charles. I’m guaranteeing nothing.”
The Sandman Universe: Dead Boy Detectives Issues 1 & 2 are available now. Issue 3 will release on February 28.