Copying can be a good thing. At least during your learning process. Rod Serling admitted he was a Hemingway copier when he first started writing, and said everything he wrote began, "It was hot." So imitation is a thing people do when they're learning to express themselves. And it works for comic book art, too. You learn how the greats do things and you eventually develop your own (fairly) distinct mode of expression*.
And yeah, there might be a few geniuses who spring forth fully formed and owe no debt to anyone. But I'd be willing to bet even Picasso started off drawing and painting like someone else he admired. He was probably six years old at the time.
I probably have no business discussing this stuff, but I have been studying art practically my entire life-- even now, when I have approximately 5 minutes a week to devote to it. Obviously I'm no Picasso and I'm not even a Hacky H. Hackerson or a J. Jonah Journeyperson yet. But what I have in common with practically any comic book artist you can name is I spent a lot of that time looking at other artists and trying to draw like them. Even established pros do this from time to time. Check out some of Alex Toth's work when he's obviously channeling Jean Giraud with those little parallel hatch lines.
Here, then, is a list of a lucky fourteen artists I've copied from over the years!
1) Alex Toth. He wasn't the first, but out of all the artists on this list-- other than possibly Al Williamson-- he's the guy whose art I want mine to look exactly like. I should get over that because at this point it's doing more harm than good, but if I'd discovered this when I was ten years old instead of in my mid-thirties, I might have learned a thing or two from him. I have to add anyone working in the "Toth School" to this entry. David Mazzucchelli's work on Batman Year One was a revelation as well. The story didn't do much for me-- crazed Batman, all lawful authorities are irredeemably stupid/corrupt so a man must act outside the law, lots of prostitutes (you know, Frank Miller)-- but the art made it work. The same goes for all the artists Toth openly admired. I'm working my way towards primary sources now, too. I think Toth would want it that way.
2) Al Williamson. He probably was the first to really blow my mind completely. I drew before I discovered Williamson, and I read comics before I ever saw one with his art and I sometimes copied art. But after seeing his work for the first time-- the Marvel adaptation of Empire Strikes Back-- I got serious about it. And kind of like I am with Toth, I'm working my way towards Williamson's influences as well. Another artist I admire, Mark Schultz, has seen to that.
3) Michael Golden. Like I wrote above, I copied artists before I found Williamson. Golden was one of them. I used to sit at our kitchen bar and meticulously copy panel after panel and cover after cover of his Micronauts work. The detail amazed me, but I think I was mostly taken with how real it seemed even if the figures themselves were slightly cartooned (look at the big eyes, for example). Oh yeah, and the way he rendered light sources on faces-- double lighting!-- and metal armor and spaceships.
4) Doug Wildey. His animation work on Jonny Quest. I went through a whole period where everything I drew I tried to make look like a Jonny Quest animation cell. The simplicity of it, plus the heavy black spotting. I suppose that's kind of Tothian, but the fixation was purely on that Jonny Quest look. I didn't know Wildey's name until years later, but he gets his own entry because of how important the Jonny Quest visuals were to me at the time.
5) The people behind Speed Racer. I conflated this with Jonny Quest, and it had a similar impact. I could look up the main artist but I'm lazy and there are too many other names to check on this list.
6) Jack Kirby. Kirby is the antithesis of Toth in a lot of ways. Steve Rude can synthesize the two; I can't. But I love Kirby's work with a passion equal to my love of Toth's and Williamson's. Plus, he's my all-time favorite guy in comics as a human being. I mean it; I'm saddened I never got to meet him and buy him a slice of chocolate cake. Kirby is one of the most comic book distinctive artists, with a look that's more immediately identifiable than just about anyone else you could name. It's almost bigger than comics themselves and very nearly elevates itself above the form. A blown-up panel of just about any mid-60s through mid-70s Kirby comic would look splendid on the walls of any museum of modern art in the world. As fun as Kirby is to read, he's just as much fun to imitate when you're drawing. If you haven't tried it, you should-- I did a side-by-side reconstruction of a Fantastic Four panel for a color theory class I had in college. We had to match the yellowed newsprint appearance of an old comic, then create how it would look printed on pure white with no competition from cheap paper and age. One of the most fun little assignments I ever had.
7) Jack Davis. Having attended the University of Georgia to study art and graphic design, I found Davis's influence inescapable. Not that I would ever want to escape it. The GD program director's appreciation of cartooning began and ended with Davis. In fact, if I didn't try to imitate Davis when I did my own little cartoons, he grunted at me. Grunt, grunt, grunt. While I had a broader sense of who I wanted to be at the time, I'd long admired Jack Davis for both his horror and funny stuff. I wanted to caricature just like him. And he did it in vivid watercolor or gouache or something. Sorry, I can't remember what, and I even got to interview the man. Unfortunately, this was about the time my hopes at being a comic book artist or commercial illustrator crashed and burned. The graphic design program was more geared towards typography and magazine design, disciplines at which I had no native talent and little interest in learning. I wanted to draw. Despite getting to work with some great illustration professors, I foolishly bucked the system and came away from this program with my confidence wrecked and unable to complete a drawing for years. I don't think I've completely recovered and probably never will.
8) John Byrne. I think just about every kid with dreams of comic book glory back in the early 80s wanted to draw like Byrne.
9) Neal Adams. Byrne always seemed to be talking about Adams. That is, when he wasn't talking about Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, another awesome DC artist. I knew Adams from some Batman reprints that kept turning up during my childhood. For a time in the late 80s I copied as many Adams Batman drawings as I could find time to do.
10) Mike Allred. Super cool art and a really nice guy. His work made me think I could possibly do comics again after my disaster at UGA. Not that I thought I'd be as good. It's just that looking at his fun work made me want to draw again. And his love for the medium is infectious. Also inspiring is the way he buckles down and turns out pages. His runs on The Atomics and Marvel's X-Force/X-Statix are freaky good and all the more impressive for their consistency and Kirby-like work ethic. Can you imagine a guy who draws like this able to turn around a monthly book? I mean this is following years of self-indulgent lesser artists constantly blowing deadlines. And a few years ago, Allred suddenly took his art to a higher level and left a lot of people in the dust. What an amazing cat!
11) Steve Rude. The Dude. There is nothing more need be said.
12) Rumiko Takahashi. Her art is the very definition of appeal. It reminds me a bit of Walt Kelly's in that you just want to hug it as much as you want to look at it. I'd give anything to produce art with this much appeal.
13) Mike Mignola. Deceptively simple. Geometric, stripped down to basic lines and areas of black. Easy to copy line-for-line, difficult to produce on your own. He has a unique way of putting together lower bodies. What's happening there with that anatomy? When I look at it, I see. When I look away, I can't.
14) Gene Colan. He should have come earlier on this list. Man, even now I would give anything to be able to draw like Colan. He always chose the most interesting angles and while later in his career his anatomy sometimes came apart as a result-- check out Batman's birthin' hips-- Colan in his prime was a true master of mood. Shadow and mood. Drama. Reading a Colan comic was like watching one of the better Hammer Studio films. Drawing from one was difficult. But even now when I draw a face wearing glasses, I'm thinking Colan.
Okay, there are a number of others I should do full entries on-- John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Goseki Kojima, Ai Yazawa, Bob McLeod, P. Craig Russell, plus a whole lot more I'm forgetting at the moment. But I'm tired of writing about drawing. I'd rather be drawing. Too bad I'm at work.
*I can't stress this enough-- this has to be in conjunction with actually learning how to draw. You need a full education in art basics like composition, perspective and figure construction, which are just some of the universal underpinnings of an artist's methods, plus a LOT of life-drawing!