With the explosion of the graphic novel category, there's been a concurrent explosion in opportunities for young cartoonists. Coming out of art school, prodigious talents might once have been persuaded to follow the lucrative paths of illustration or animation, but now graphic novels—book-format comics targeting both the general book and comics retail markets—are now an equally seductive siren song. The results, as seen in the work of Jeff Lemire, Dash Shaw, Hope Larson and Eleanor Davis, are unexpected and genre busting.

Jeff Lemire

The oldest, at 32, Jeff Lemire, gained acclaim with his Essex County trilogy, published by Top Shelf. The first two volumes, Tales from the Farm and Ghost Stories were published in 2007; the third, The Country Nurse, arrives later this year. All three follow the struggles of ordinary small-town folk, told with a literary nuance that has gained Lemire much praise, including several Eisner Award nominations and YALSA's Alex Award.

Now based in Toronto, Lemire grew up in a small Canadian town similar to those he writes about. He came to comics after a stint in film school made him realize that making movies wasn't for him. “If I wanted to tell stories, it was just easier to draw them than to communicate through a crew and actors,” he recalls.

Lemire's work caught the eye of Vertigo editor Bob Schreck, and his upcoming The Nobody is one of the books leading the DC Comics imprint's renewed emphasis on original graphic novels. Like his previous work, it explores small-town life, but this time more of the negative side is on display. Based loosely on H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man, The Nobody follows a bandaged stranger who appears in a small town. “I use it as a cipher to explore the small rural community,” Lemire says. While his previous books explored what keeps people together, “this one explores the opposite and the small-mindedness of small towns.”

Life as a graphic novelist appeals to Lemire. “I want to do this as long as I can. I'm pretty fast, so I can turn out a book and a half a year; if I can keep doing that I'll be happy.” Working for Vertigo has already enabled Lemire to quit his day job as a cook in a Mexican restaurant. That experience will form the basis of his next graphic novel for Top Shelf.

Dash Shaw

While Lemire works in a fairly straightforward milieu, 25-year-old New Yorker Dash Shaw has chosen an adventurous formalist style for his just-released The Bottomless Belly Button from Fantagraphics and for his Web comic, Body World. While obviously inspired by the work of Chris Ware, he also mentions the science fiction adventure strips of Paul Pope as a big influence. Naming any influence for Shaw's boundary-pushing work seems unfair, however: it's all his own. Shaw attended New York City's School of Visual Arts, studying illustration and cartooning. There he self-published several books and joined the comics anthology Meathaus, which has also been a breeding ground for other young comics artists, among them Farel Dalrymple, Becky Cloonan, James Jean and Tomer Hanuka.

Shaw's unique style is a blend of the detached and the cartoony. “A lot of my comics are about being distanced from the characters,” he explains. “In The Bottomless Belly Button a lot of the characters are trying to give advice to other characters, but that reveals more about them than the situation. Those situations are simultaneously frustrating and extremely emotional.”

At more than 800 pages, Bottomless Belly Button was a long-term project for Shaw, which he balances with some shorter stories for MOME, a Fantagraphics anthology series collecting the work of new artists. His challenge, he said, was to find an emotional range that would hold his attention long enough to complete the book. The book's unusual structure includes diagrams, cutaways and other structural innovations, things he plans in advance. “I try to picture flipping through a book in my mind and how the sequences and esthetic of it would look, and then I try to execute that world.”

While Bottomless Belly Button promises to get a lot of attention for Shaw, he, too, has no plans to abandon graphic novels for another form. “Right now I don't want to direct movies or paint. Financially, I just hope that I can keep it up,” he says.

Hope Larson

Hope Larson, also 25, is another young cartoonist who already has a book deal, this time with Ginee Seo Books, an imprint under Simon & Schuster Children's. Chiggers, her first mainstream graphic novel, is due this summer. Acclaimed for her lush illustration and romantic, fantastic stories, Larson lives in North Carolina with her husband, Bryan Lee O'Malley, another impressive young comics artist and author of the much-acclaimed Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. Larson attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where she concentrated on printmaking. She credits O'Malley with introducing her to a wider world of comics, although she describes herself in high school as a nerd who played Dungeons & Dragons, a theme that recurs in Chiggers. Scott McCloud, the comics theoretician and author of MakingComics, saw some of her illustrations online and encouraged her to try comics. Eventually she contributed a story to Flight, a much praised anthology, and then produced two well-received graphic novels, SalamanderDreamsfor AdHouse Books and GrayHorses for Oni Press.

With Chiggers Larson has made what she considers a great leap with her writing, resulting in a story with more resonance and cohesion. Her tale was inspired by her own youth in North Carolina and her desire to write “a fun story for nerdy teenaged girls.” In her own high school years, people even threw food at her, but now she feels it's more acceptable for girls to be nerds. “The other night, I saw a girl wearing a tail and cat ears out in a small North Carolina town. I think it's great! I wish I'd grown up five years later.”

Larson's next book is also for Ginee Seo, and has the working title Mercury. It takes place in Nova Scotia, where Larson lived for a time with O'Malley. She adds, “It's my most ambitious story yet, set half in the present and half in the1860s. Nova Scotia is an economically depressed province but incredibly rich in history. It's always been hard times there.”

Eleanor Davis

At 25, Eleanor Davis is perhaps the least known of the class of '08—her name has been mentioned in cartooning circles for years as a talent to watch and she's set to break out this year with Stinky for Toon Books, François Mouly's new book-format comics series for early readers, and next year with the first volume of Secret Science Alliance, a children's graphic novel series for Bloomsbury. Like the others, Davis went to art school—the Savannah College of Art and Design—not really knowing what direction her career would take. She completed some minicomics (short self-published works) and contributed to a few anthologies before signing up with agent Denis Kitchen and his agency, Kitchen, Lind & Associates. She was still in school when Mouly approached her to contribute to Toon Books. ForStinky, a story about a pickle-loving monster, she turned to her love of drawing monsters. “I get bored drawing autobiographical stuff—I tend to like to draw monsters, and there aren't that many monsters in my life,” she quips.

For the SecretScienceAlliance, the tale of three kid inventors who have adventures saving the world, she's engaged in world building inspired by such comics as LittleLulu. She notes, “One of the things I really dislike about the way kids grow up these days is how they are super sheltered and don't get out by themselves.” Davis's boyfriend, Drew Weing, is also an acclaimed cartoonist, and he's inking the book for her.

Like many other graphic novelists, Davis has found the schedule of drawing one long book after another to be a marathon. “I've worked on SecretScienceAlliance for a solid year, and it's kind of exhausting. You tell your friends you can't come out and have a beer because you have to work, and they roll their eyes.” However, she's grateful for the career opportunity. “I genuinely love what I'm doing. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think, how did this happen?”