How do we really learn making comics? Is it by learning how to do portraits? paint a tree? Learning to draw, you DO need to draw the real world. But creating comics is quite different for me. There are no straight rules. There are some modifications and even exxagerations to make an interesting comics. Even if I can draw really good, I may not be a great storyteller. Like I said before, You'll learn by living the life. As a kid growing up, I've seen and tried to copy all sorts of style while I was reading comics. I know the names of the artists I admire and can identify which one is who's work just by looking at the strokes of their art. In fact, the changes in style from Jack Kirby to John Byrne to Jim Lee is one of the evidence that style evolves in comics, Each style give out an era in comics. Even the tools being used is an outstanding giveaway.
Comics has its own special quality that only and only comics can give. Some people may think that it may be limiting and they'd rather do animation or doing a movie to tell a story. But that is where the real challenge is, telling a complete story with just so much space. That is why we call our idols, comics geniuses. I learned from them, not by talking to them personally but through their works.
If you could ask anyone from the professional community if they have ever copied from comics before? The aswer will be YES! I don't see why we should change that tradition. That is where evolution unfolds right before our very eyes. It is something beautiful when I can see one artist developed a new style by merging not 2 but sometimes 4 different styles or even more and will end up with something that is really unique.
Now, developing a style is very tricky process and sometime soon, you will have to stop looking at other people's work, if you feel that you are truly ready to do so. This way, real time influences will be avoided. By doing this, you will be able to draw without references. In time you'll see, a new style will be born.
We do need references almost always, but mostly for backgrounds items and all the props.