It’s admittedly a bit dry, but Craig Fischer’s post at the Comics Journal about Jack Kirby’s control of the reader’s focus in his art is well worth picking through:
Another way to indicate peripheral elements is through thickness of line. In the following panel from the second page of Fantastic Four #60 (March 1967), the figures dominate the foreground, especially Ben Grimm, whose outline is inked with thick holding lines, whose skin is dotted with spot blacks, and whose body is moving left-to-right in a dynamic diagonal… As we look away from the characters, however, and allow our eyes to roam around the panel, we can see that the machinery on the far wall is inked with a much thinner line than the contours that surround the characters in the foreground. The formula is intuitive: the foreground is drawn in thick, eye-catching lines and the background in unobtrusive thinner ones, to create the illusion of receding depth. And the artist has the option to ditch backgrounds altogether if s/he wants the reader’s interest to focus exclusively on the characters.
It’s a post that draws attention to Kirby’s still-unparalleled skill in the composition of comics, but also the contributions made by inkers and colorists; these days, I think that colorists shoulder a lot more responsibility for keeping different planes of depth distinct for the reader, for better or worse. Looking at black and white artwork from a number of modern day mainstream artists, there’s been a move away from thickness of line to differentiate that in linework alone – Look at uncolored art from Marc Silvestri or Jim Lee, for example; the amount of detail/cross-hatching “confuses” the eye when it comes to the important of lineweight, I think. Reading this post, I wondered to what extent Kirby’s legacy has been… reduced isn’t the right word, exactly, but selectively chosen, perhaps. Masters like Kirby, or Alex Toth, had skills that went beyond surface style, but I’m not sure how many of those skills have been studied or even noticed by a lot of artists working in superhero comics today.
(Of course, then there are artists like Chris Samnee, Marcos Martin and Javier Pulido, who have shown themselves to know exactly what made Kirby, Toth et al such masters, so it’s not a basic “Hey, these young kids don’t know nothin‘!” scenario…)