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'Superheroes are our dreams of ourselves'

Comic books writer Alan Moore tells Laura Sneddon about cultivating a female audience with an erotic odyssey

A towering presence, both on and off the page, Alan Moore is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of the past 50 years.

Watchmen remains one of the most acclaimed comics ever written, while V for Vendetta masks have become the face of anti-bank protests around the world. He stepped away from mainstream publishing and film royalties: an act of artistic integrity that has seen him branded as everything from eccentric to bitter. Eccentric perhaps, in the way that writers often are, but bitter? Certainly not.

The man that greets me is warm and affable, and delighted to be asked to talk about one of his favourite works, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It's a series he says is dear to his heart, particularly those more recent episodes published by the independent Knockabout Comics.

"The Victorian era," says Moore of the original setting of the comics, "with hindsight, was fraught with horrors. But then, when England was high on the hog, it must have felt like a very bold, heroic, swashbuckling time. We were certain of our place in the world, we were certain that it was going to last for ever, and so we created [corresponding] kinds of figures. I suppose all fictional characters, especially in adventure or heroic fiction, at the end of the day are our dreams about ourselves. And sometimes they can be really revealing."

Set in the world of English literature, with characters ranging from Orlando to Jekyll and Hyde, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the only work in comics that Moore has continued since his break from the mainstream comics industry in 1999. A decade after the first volume was published in collected form, the second of a planned three volumes, Century 1969, has been one of the highest selling graphic novels of 2011; clearly, it is a winning series and has attracted fans from beyond the regular comics readership. That is admittedly due in part to the "wretched film", as Moore describes it – an exceptionally loose adaptation indeed that starred Sean Connery and was released in 2003. But it's also down to the series' literary appeal.

"When I do signings occasionally, and get to meet some of the audience, I've noticed that there are a lot more women in the queues, which is perhaps a mark of the general female uptake of comics, " Moore tells me. "It's not such a boys' field as it used to be. But also it seems that a lot of people don't seem to be coming from a comics background."

Moore was always ahead of the times with respect to female fans – unlike much of the comics industry, – and was the creator of the revolutionary The Ballad of Halo Jones, a sci-fi strip to run alongside Judge Dredd in the UK comic 2000AD. First appearing in 1984, Halo was one of the first non-superhero women to headline her own series, at a time when most girls' comics had folded.

"There wasn't a single – I mean, I was annoyed – there wasn't a single girls' comic in Britain," Moore remembers. "I thought, well if you do more stories that are aimed at women, you'll get more women reading the comics. It would seem fairly simple and straightforward, but there was a lot of resistance [to the idea]."

Moore had proved with Halo that good comics were capable of drawing a new female audience without losing their core readership; the large comics publishers are still struggling to realise this today. But something else he wanted to create was a beautiful "whole extended work that was about nothing other than sex and sexuality; to do an erotic piece that was as thought-through and considered as any other work. It always struck me as peculiar," he rumbles in his Northampton twang, "that you could have endless American comics every month that were all based around acts of violence, and yet to be about something as universal and common and normal and socially productive as sex was completely forbidden."

"For a long while, my thinking on it completely hit a wall," he continues, "because I was thinking in terms of the comics industry, in which 99.9 per cent of the artists are male. So I was thinking of getting a man to draw this big, sexual book, and it just never felt right. It would have inevitably led to a locker-room atmosphere; it would have been men's idea of women rather than women's ideas of themselves. With the best will in the world."

That is, until Moore met Melinda Gebbie, described by him as "the best underground artist" around, and the two created the lavish Lost Girls, an erotic journey guided by the now adult Wendy, Alice and Dorothy – characters from some of the most beloved children's classics. Despite trepidation from both artist and author, the book was critically and commercially well received.

"We've had an incredible response," Moore beams, "again, an awful lot of it from women. Because it's hardly rocket science to do a pornographic book that will appeal to men – that's not really that difficult! So right from the very start, it was our intention to do something that would appeal to women."

Currently hard at work on his upcoming novel, Jerusalem, and working with the artist Kevin O'Neill on the much anticipated Century 2009, it's clear that Moore is a very passionate writer and a natural storyteller, and his final words on the subject will surely resonate with any fellow author: "It's always just 26 letters of the alphabet and a handful of punctuation, and that is so staggeringly elegant .... It's just you and the page, and there is something very addictive about that."

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Omnibus (DC, £37.99)is published on Friday; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 (Knockabout, £7.99) and Lost Girls (Top Shelf, £33.99) are available now