Writers: William Bitner, Daniel Boyd
Art: Brendon Fraim, Brian Fraim
Were Death Falcon Zero vs. The Zombie Slug Lords a movie, it would be received as a refreshingly unpretentious return to a style of entertainment that has slowly, silently dwindled into extinction. A breed of movie once found in dingy, smoke-filled cinemas, and later confined to the 80s home video market; rife with gratuitous nudity, gross humour, rubber monsters and intended to be enjoyed with friends, preferably while intoxicated.
Death Falcon Zero isn’t quite the romantic comedy its title might suggest, nor is it a movie. It isn’t even a graphic novel by definition, but rather an illustrated novel. Both William Bitner and Daniel Boyd are real-life wrestlers, two-thirds of tag team The Grapes of Wrath, and originally planned Death Falcon Zero as a feature film adventure for their wrestling alter egos – the titular Death Falcon and Professor Danger, respectively. The end product is a novel that shares a common goal with both the exploitation genre and the comic medium, delivering a quick shot of spandex-clad cornball fantasy straight into your veins before exiting fast enough to leave you craving seconds. More novel with graphics than graphic novel, then.
DFZ, as he is often referred to, is as much the sociopathic, whore hustling hulk of an antihero that populated 80s action cinema as he is a homage to the masked Mexican luchadore hero Santo. Pardoned and released from prison in order to lay the smackdown on Charleston’s rising zombie population, DFZ is a far from sympathetic beast, and the book only really gets into swing when he enlists his former wrestling buddies, the aged academic Professor Danger and destitute crack head Raw Danger. Oddly, in a book where the main characters never step outside of their stage names, the award for worst name goes to government Agent Casey Gunnar, the obligatory no-nonsense girl with a firearm. Senator Legend, the bureaucratic villain of the piece, is an enjoyably despicable moustache-twirler of a villain, though to disclose his plans would be a spoiler.
Though Death Falcon Zero vs. The Zombie Slug Lords clearly doesn’t aspire for intellectual substance, it’s not entirely brainless. Adopting the ripped-from-the-headlines etiquette of the exploitation flick, the book’s real-world drugs analogy and Charleston, West Virginia backdrop lend it a certain authenticity that is usually lacking in this genre. That the authorities are reluctant to tackle Charleston’s zombie epidemic for fear of losing potential (undead) voters is an inventive touch.
Here in the UK, wrestling has never reached the level of popularity that it maintains stateside. As someone whose relationship with the flamboyant performance sport ended around the era of Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Bushwhackers, the many wrestling references were somewhat lost on me, though I appreciated the fact that Death Falcon Zero features a multitude of ring personalities, both large (such as Johnny Valiant) and local, such as the bizarre cross-dressing Team G.A.Y. which I had to research online out of the disbelief that such a tag team would exist. Given that the wrestler, be he hero or antagonist, embodies the spirit of the comic superhero/villain in athletic, competitive form, it’s somewhat surprising that the lucha libre variety of wrestler has not rode louder on the back of the current comic movie zeitgeist.
Bitner’s humour occasionally backfires, often in DFZ’s virile taunts, and the plot’s screenplay origins sometimes make it read a little disjointed, but the brief and distinctly episodic chapters keep the experience a zippy and pleasurable one at all times. Bitner and Boyd clearly have a lot of love for their characters; unsurprising as they technically are their characters. The bold illustrations by the Fraim brothers capture the chapters well – you’ll find yourself flicking back to them numerous times – though they may have you wishing further that this novel was a full-on graphic novel.
Death Falcon Zero vs. The Zombie Slug Lords knows its audience, and it plays specifically to them. With an ending that slyly avoids a concrete conclusion, leaving the fates of the Grapes of Wrath indefinite, Bitner and Boyd have produced a fun, deliberately pulpy read that is begging to be adapted or even “sequalised” into comic book format.