“Back to the drawing board”

drawing board.jpg

I got to wondering… is “back to the drawing board” the most well-known mainstream expression to have originated in a comic panel or comic strip?

Of course this panel is also significant because it might be the only known Peter Arno comic that doesn’t include a naked woman.


  1. I’ve heard it said that some aerospace engineers’ jobs are over as soon as their project achieves Mission Success. So achieving their goals is a somewhat bittersweet experience for them, as they no longer have the jobs they’ve grown accustomed to.

    In this cartoon, the architect of the downed plane can’t help but see the silver lining around the bad news: he gets to keep working on a project he likes.

  2. I wonder if he drew a version that didn’t have the parachute, and the editors made him re-do the drawing to include it. Otherwise it’s far grimmer than it appears.

  3. Though there are other common expressions which started as the punchlines of jokes, such as, “Waiting for the other shoe to drop,” and “When the $#!+ hit the fan.”

    And, of course, there’s the one you remarked on some time ago: “Backwards and in high heels.” Until I read it here, I hadn’t realized that was from a comic, nor did I realize that “back to the drawing board” came from this comic. When I originally read it, I thought it was a riff on an existent old saying.

  4. I vaguely thought “Don’t tread on me” originated in a sort-of cartoon, but on checking I realized I was thinking of “Join or die,” which admittedly isn’t famous enough to content with “Back to the drawing board.”

    I suppose “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it” is a contender for second place. (And I’ll probably think of other contenders five seconds after I hit ‘send.”)

  5. A quote from Igor Sikorsky basically says it all: “The chief engineer was almost always the chief test pilot as well. That had the fortunate result of eliminating poor engineering early in aviation.”

  6. “security blanket” is up there.

    (I’ve never heard anyone say “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it” who wasn’t deliberately quoting the cartoon and I’ve *certainly* never heard anyone say “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam” unless they were imitating Popeye.)

  7. For single-use strips and panels, I can’t think of anything that is more famous in the United States than “back to the (old) drawing board.” I think “curate’s egg,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curate%27s_egg, may be more famous in the United Kingdom, but I’m open to correction on that point.

    There are more famous expressions from comic books, but these tend to be from on-going usage rather than use in a single story. For example, the Superman stories originated “kryptonite” and, I believe, “secret identity” (although there were many characters with undisclosed alter egos, so that could have originated with someone other than Superman/Clark Kent). “Security blanket,” from Peanuts, is arguably more famous, but that again gets its fame from on-going usage.

    “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam” is Popeye’s catchphrase and originated in Thimble Theatre, where it was used many times. It is almost always used with reference to Popeye, and I think it is fair to say that it has not had the same impact on the language as “back to the drawing board.”

  8. I’m pretty sure “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it” has nothing to do with Popeye, and it’s the PG version of a Dennis the Menace line.

  9. >I’m pretty sure “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it” has nothing to do with Popeye, and it’s the PG version of a Dennis the Menace line.

    I thought it was a very early New Yorker cartoon.

  10. *Sigh* St. Wikipedia again….

    >What White called “the spinach joke”[5] quickly became one of the New Yorker cartoon captions to enter the vernacular (later examples include Peter Arno’s “Back to the drawing board!” and Peter Steiner’s “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”)

    How could we forget “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”?!

    We had this discussion before and that was high up there.

    (So my last 5 consecutive comments were all immediately put in moderation. Will this one too?”

  11. “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it” is from a single-panel 1928 New Yorker cartoon, drawn by Carl Rose and captioned by E.B. White, according to Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_say_it%27s_spinach. I thought of this cartoon, and I’ve certainly used the line myself, but it did not seem to me to be as famous as “back to the drawing board.”

    The Wikipedia article also mentions another famous cartoon that had slipped my mind: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” That’s probably up there with “back to the drawing board.” In my opinion, the dog cartoon is not particularly funny but expresses an important truth, while the spinach and drawing board cartoons are genuinely quite funny.

  12. @ Andréa – I don’t think they were intended to be German. This comic appeared in 1941, before the US entered WWII. At that point, the general “collective memory” of what military officers were “supposed” to look like was probably still based on images from WWI.
    P.S. I think we’ve discussed this comic (and topic) before, but it’s not in the archive now, so if I am right, then it must have been before the “crisis of alternate CIDUs”.

  13. I wasn’t looking at the plane so much as the military officers (?) walking toward the plane. Just appeared German to me, but I could be prejudiced. Did British officers also wear those long coats?

  14. In the article above, the commentator/critic who is ‘splaining why this is ‘the perfect cartoon’ mentions ‘English readers’; I took it to mean those of us who read English, as opposed to British readers, as this is in the New Yorker and Peter Arno himself was American. So, not having entered WWII, this being a British plane and they being British officers might make sense. I wonder if Brits found it funny.

  15. Shrug, “don’t tread on me” goes back to 1775. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadsden_flag

    Andréa, thanks for that article. I also don’t know who the quoted cartoonist/critic is, but the outer portions of the article are from Bob Mankoff, who at that time was cartoon editor; as you probably know anyway. Anyway, the remark about “English readers” is pretty clearly as you say probably not about nationality but language, as his point is just that we read text left to right and so we tend to read pictures that way too. However, specifying English is probably misleadingly too specific — any Western written left-to-right language could fit, so he could have just said European or something like that.

  16. “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam” (or did that come from the Fleischer cartoons?)

    I always took that as Segar (Fleisher?) doing a take on God’s famous line, “I am I am” (from the burning bush, to Moses). Generally interpreted as meaning that one of God’s names is “I am.” (Another part of the Torah says his name is “Jealous” for he is a jealous god.)

  17. “Can we be sure this cartoon is the first instance of this phrase?”

    Several sites say it is. I haven’t found one that denies it. And that’s good enough for me (until someone else does research which belies it).

  18. Okay, I have it: The word “gerrymander” derives from an 1812 cartoon (where it is referred to as “Gerry-mander,” after Mass. governor Elbridge Gerry). Used once, and the unquestioned origin of the expression. I think it will be hard to find a better case than that.

  19. If you look at the original, there’s no ‘gerry’ or ‘mander’ in it. That came from the reaction to it.

  20. One interesting thing about Back to the old drawing board” is that the phrase became well-known enough to be quoted just a decade or so later in a Warner Bros. cartoon (with Bugs Bunny and the as of then yet unnamed “Marvin Martian”).

  21. I think French fighters were more likely to have the tricouleur stripes at the back of the tail fin as in the cartoon; British nearer the front or in a discrete rectangle.

  22. I believe it’s mentioned/verified in the article I linked to above. (I’ve hit the limit of articles, so I can’t go back to read it again myself.)

    I will never use the phrase again. Not that I ever did, but now . . . .

  23. so it’s back to the drawing board for you for a phrase to indicate you need to start over from basic principles?

  24. The slight twist is that, while we now say a so-called “soft g” (like in “Jerry”) in the term ‘gerrymander’, the politician’s name apparently had a so-called “hard g” (like in “Gary”).

  25. Usual John, Kryptonite came from the radio show. The story goes, it was meant to covet up the fact that the voice actor was ill or unavailable, and therefore all Superman had to do was groan.

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