Here's a sweeping statement I'm happy to admit probably has less truth to it than I'd like to think, but which I'm going to make anyway: Comic book artists today can be divided into two camps, originating from two different approaches to graphical art and storytelling.
The first approach is what I'd call form-and-function realism, and can trace its origins back to Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, among others. Raymond's artistic descendants include artists as varied as Al Williamson, Neal Adams, John Buscema, Mike Kaluta, and Alex Ross. (Talk about variation.) Their primary emphasis seems to be on form and mood, and while realism per se isn't always their goal (certainly not in Kaluta's case), they use techniques based in realism to achieve their ends -- form, shadow, an approximation of the natural world. All of it rooted in the dramatic, "realistic" approach first really popularized by Alex Raymond in his newspaper strip, Flash Gordon, and later, in Rip Kirby.
The other style, for lack of a better term (or at least, for lack of any term that comes to me at the moment), I'll call cartoon-and-graphic-based, and its primary source is the work of Milton Caniff on his newspaper strip, Terry & the Pirates, and later, on Steve Canyon. Caniff's approach has been inherited by comic book artists like Jack Kirby, John Romita, Ross Andru, and lately, the brothers Hernandez, and Darwyn Cooke. Here the emphasis is on storytelling-through-graphics, with less concern for realism, and more attention given to a clean, dramatic line. Most comic books today seem to be descended more from the Caniff line than from that represented by Raymond.
I'm not making a value judgment about the artist merits of either style -- I think they're both terrific. I just find it interesting, and worth thinking about. I started thinking about it when I looked through a recent reprint of a Justice League story I wrote years ago, drawn by Dick Dillin. It occurred to me Dick's art owed a great debt to Milton Caniff, and that got me thinking about some of the other artists I'd worked with -- like Romita, and Andru (influenced by Caniff), and Don Newton and Dick Giordano (influenced by Raymond). I've also been re-reading Caniff's Terry & the Pirates and Steve Canyon:
I've also had a lot of fun reading Tom Roberts' new (heavily illustrated) biography of Alex Raymond:
Thoughts? Comments? Let me know.