Lorne Jackson

NOW I know exactly how Commissioner Gordon feels. James W Gordon, as any fan of American comic books will inform you, is always on the look-out for Batman. The Police Chief of Gotham City usually has an easier time finding his buddy than I’m experiencing at the moment.

Then again, Jim has a distinct advantage over me. He never has to wander round Gotham yelling: “Yoo-hoo! Anyone spotted a caped vigilante wearing a mask and pointy ears?” Instead he has a handy Bat-Signal at his disposal, which he beams into the night sky whenever he wants to attract Batman’s attention.

All I’ve got is shoe leather, journalistic gumption and my ever-swivelling eyeballs. And not a Dark Knight do I spot in Glasgow’s SECC.

Which is surprising, really, because I’m at MCM Comic Con Scotland, the biggest annual event of its kind north of the border.

I’ve been to such gatherings of comic book fans before. A memorable aspect of these get-togethers is the amount of people who arrive dressed as their favourite characters.

This is how it usually goes…

Fat dude squished into a Batman suit? Yup. Bad-posture fella, who really should know better, kitted out in Spider-Man gear? Yup. Tubby Wonder Woman with bingo wings, eating chips and carry sauce next to the Burger Bar? Yup, double yup and my sweet Lord, I think that curry sauce is just about to drip down her ample cleavage.

But today?

No blubber-bellied Bat-boy. Nada on the Spidey front. And not a sauce-slathered Wonder Woman on the premises.

Which leads me to conclude that the tectonic plates are shifting on Planet Geek. A paradigm shift of epic proportions is underway.

American comic book superheroes are no longer the huge deal they once were. So what’s replaced them?

A number of eminent personages, it seems. Fans have come dressed as the heroes of Japanese manga comic books. They also impersonate computer game characters. And the stars of Sci-Fi and fantasy shows broadcast by Netflix, Amazon and others.

It’s a multicultural, multimedia lovefest.

And, yes, eventually I do spot those ageing stalwarts of fandom. Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman stumble around in a marginalised daze, like elderly relatives invited to a 21st birthday party, nodding politely to the young whippersnappers while hoping they can sneak away soon, then home for Horlicks and bed.

They are much depleted in number. Surrounded and outgunned by the future. Facing a final battle they have no hope of winning.

Everyone becomes irrelevant in the end – even the Caped Crusader.

John Marc DeMatteis (known to fans as JM DeMatteis) agrees that the times are changing.

The New York-raised comic book legend is one of a large number of international guests flown into Comic Con to meet fans, sign autographs and chat about their careers.

He has been writing American comics for four decades. “I even noticed the change in what was selling with my own kid,” he tells me. John’s son, now an adult, grew up a comic fan. So it would be understandable to conclude that he’d have been thrilled to get his mitts on all the freebies dad was sent each month by DC and Marvel. (The two most powerful and influential publishers of American superhero comic books.)

Not so.

“My son was really into manga,” he says. “So we had to go into New York City, head to this Japanese store and grab all the stuff we could to satisfy his fix.”

Is John depressed at this turn of events?

“Not at all! What I’ve always wanted to see is more diversity in the material. In my own career I’ve gone back and forward between writing comics and novels. I’ve also written films and TV out in Hollywood. Worked on more adult material and kids’ stuff. Plus superhero stories and material more personal to me.

“As a writer, I want an audience as broad-based as possible. You don’t want to just keep reading about Spiderman, even though I love Spiderman and have written plenty of Spidey comics over the years.”

Curiously enough, while comic fans are gradually freeing themselves of old obsessions, the outer world is becoming addicted to the material they are discarding.

American superheroes may not rule the Nerd Universe as once they did. But Marvel now dominates movieland, with a slew of superhero flicks saturating the market. DC are on the rampage, too, with Joker, a movie focusing on the company’s most notorious supervillain, likely to be Autumn’s biggest hit. The cape-wearing crew are also making inroads into television.

Not everyone is delighted about the new normal.

Martin Scorsese admitted last week that he tried to watch a few Marvel movies, but left feeling bemused by all the biff-bang-boingery. He concluded that the situations and emotions displayed on screen were fake. It wasn’t authentic cinema.

The Raging Bull director did concede that the actors seemed to be trying their best under difficult circumstances. Jason Liebrecht, who I also meet at Comic Con, is one such actor and the American has made a good living in the world Marty struggles to comprehend.

Jason played a zombie in Fear of the Walking Dead. He’s also one of the most respected voice artists for the English-language versions of anime (Japanese cartoons) and computer games.

Not the sort of gigs I imagine John Gielgud would have been thrilled to accept. It certainly ain’t Hamlet at the Old Vic. But the world of acting, like those of comic books and movies, is evolving rapidly.

So what was it like being a member of the living dead?

“Really cool,” says Jason. “I had to do a zombie training course before getting in front of the cameras. They evaluate how you should move, then give you a little bit of direction.”

And what direction did he receive? Shamble with meaning?

Jason grins: “None of the advice was very surprising. ‘More groaning! More groaning!’ That sort of thing.”

Acting for anime and computer games also has its challenges. Jason is ticked-off when such performances are dismissed with the snooty shrug of a fellow thespian’s shoulder. Nobody has yet bagged an Oscar for best computer game performance, but it is demanding and disciplined work nonetheless.

“When you act on stage you have everything at your disposal,” he says. “But when you are voice-acting, you are acting without all your weapons. You still have to convey all these emotions, but with the voice alone.

“I’ve recommended friends who were excellent on stage but they haven’t been able to do the voice work. For some people it’s difficult to maintain the honesty of the performance when you’re just using your voice.”

Honesty is also important to Alex Assan, another creator I meet. Raised in Israel, though based in Edinburgh, the 26-year-old draws comic books that focus on gay and feminist issues. Being an LGBTQ artist isn’t easy in the world of comics, she tells me.

Alex isn’t employed by the major companies. Instead, she makes a living publishing and promoting her web comics online and selling self-published comic books at conventions like this one.

“When I was growing up in Israel, access to comics was fairly limited,” she says. “I had to go online to find the content I was looking for. Specifically content aimed at women, and written for and by queer people.”

She adds: “It’s still a straight, white, male dominated industry. That’s very obvious from the guests invited to these types of conventions. The industry’s so-called legends will almost always be from a certain demographic.

“It’s kind of difficult to break into that. There’s still a sense you won’t necessarily get the same opportunities, or you’ll have to work three times as hard to reach the same places. But it’s definitely getting better.”

Alex says the internet is creating fresh avenues that didn’t exist in the past. “The great thing about the web is that it’s really easy to search for things that interest you,” she says. “So people who are interested in the areas I cover, which is sort of niche, can find my work on the internet. I may not get my work into comic book shops or newsagents, but as long as people have access to a search engine, they can find me.”