Steve Sack doesn’t remember exactly how old he was when he drew his first cartoon — pre-kindergarten, certainly. But he remembers what it was, and where he got the paper to sketch it.
“I drew a picture of a dinosaur, showed it to my mom, and she was delighted,” he said. “I can’t tell you how that supercharged me. For a little kid, you make your mom happy, you want to do it again. That was my encouragement.
“My grandfather worked for the railroad. He used to give us pads of paper and pencils. I guess he stole the office stationery. As soon as I was tall enough, I’d open that drawer, take out my paper and make my little drawings.”
That little kid from West St. Paul eventually found a much wider audience as a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Star Tribune. Five days a week for more than four decades, Sack delighted readers (most of them, anyway) with a distinctive mix of pointed opinion, whimsy and mischief.
The best cartoonists, like the best columnists, make readers laugh, cry and think. That’s Sack, whose pencil and politics lean left. In awarding him the Pulitzer in 2013 (he’s been a finalist three other times), the Pulitzer Board cited his “vivid, distinctive cartoons that used creative metaphors for high-impact results.”
Recently, however, Sack’s cartoons vanished from the pages of the Strib. His last, skewering former president Donald Trump and Fox News host Tucker Carlson for supporting Russian president Vladimir Putin, appeared Feb. 26. Then, nothing, for almost two months. Some readers feared a recurrence of the cancer that forced Sack to take a medical leave in 2018.
It wasn’t that. About eight months ago, Sack said, he began to feel numbness in the fingers of his right (drawing) hand. Numbness and tingling soon spread to his whole hand, then up his arm, all the way up to the shoulder. A neurologist diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome and nerve issues.
Though Sack, 68, had surgery and says his hand is “kind of” improving, he decided to retire. Because drawing remains problematic, he signed off via a short written piece in the Sunday Strib on April 24.
“I just have difficulty with precisely making my hand do what I want it to do,” Sack said in a telephone interview. “For my drawing, I need those fine motor movements, those little delicate lines I want to make.
“It’s like writing. There are a lot of different movements in everything you do. You’re moving the pencil up and down and sideways. Until then, I had complete mastery of that, so I noticed it right away. I accommodated it for a while, but then it started feeling more and more pronounced. So I saw a neurologist and looked into it.”
All his life, cartooning has been as second-nature for Sack as breathing. Besides his Strib work, for years he collaborated with another artist on Doodles, a syndicated Sunday cartoon for kids featuring puzzles, riddles and word games. “I wanted an excuse to draw monsters and aliens and all the things I did when I was a little kid,” said Sack, who gave Doodles up a couple of years ago. Even while lying in a hospital bed undergoing cancer treatment, Sack sketched cartoons. “It’s hard for me to imagine not doing it,” he said.
And readers couldn’t imagine going without their daily Sack cartoon. More than 2,000 people reacted to Sack’s retirement announcement on his Facebook page, while more than 1,000 left comments. Sack said he received hundreds of emails from readers, friends, former and present colleagues, even folks from his old West St. Paul neighborhood. He’s trying to respond to them all, but typing aggravates his carpal tunnel. A lifetime two-fingered typist, Sack found himself reduced to one, and the going is slow.
“You get a sense there are people out there watching and reading,” Sack said. “But I have to say, I was really stunned and blown away by the reaction.
“The most touching one was a woman who said she’s seen all my cartoons and she just loves them. She said a number of years ago, because of a medical condition, she lost her eyesight, and she has her husband read them and describe them to her every day. That just kind of blew me away.”
Staff editorial cartoonists are an endangered species in today’s ever-shrinking newspaper industry, and Sack’s retirement doesn’t help. Fewer than 30 full-time staff cartoonist jobs exist in newspapers today, according to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, down from about 150 in the early 1980s. The Pioneer Press lost the talented Kirk Anderson more than a decade ago in one of their many downsizings, leaving Sack alone in the Twin Cities.
Some papers rely on syndicated cartoons to save money, while others don’t run them at all, avoiding the blowback when a cartoon angers a cohort of readers or a deep-pockets advertiser.
But Sack thinks there’s still a place in today’s 24/7, short-attention-span news cycle for a well-executed political cartoon, even if it riles readers. “I think the reaction I got from our readers would speak to that,” he said.
And don’t get Sack started on editors who scrap cartoons altogether. “We’ve always provoked readers, and there’s always someone who’s not going to like it, some more intensely than others,” he said. “Editors used to get that. That was part of the deal. But lately, it seems like some editors are overly cautious with that. One guy said, if he could find a cartoonist who could please everyone, he’d run him. Well, good luck with that. You might as well run Marmaduke on the editorial page.”
Twice in his career, Sack worried he might be the next cartoonist out the door: first, when the Minneapolis Star and Tribune merged in 1982 (the Tribune hired him the year before so he lacked seniority), and then when Avista Capital Partners bought the Strib from McClatchy in 2007. The first time, the Strib chose to keep both Sack and Star cartoonist Craig MacIntosh; they later collaborated on Doodles. The second time, Sack said he was among more than 100 staffers Avista targeted for buyouts.
“My name was put on that list,” he said. “I didn’t put my name on that list. But it was like someone was trying to volunteer me out the door. I had no intention of taking it.
“I honestly really wasn’t worried about that. I had enough seniority that they’d have to pretty much hollow out the paper before they got to me. I was more concerned about what they were doing. We lost a lot of good people when those guys owned us. A New York investment banker consortium is exactly as charming as it sounds. They gutted us. They were awful. They put us through bankruptcy. Thank goodness for Glen Taylor (who bought the Strib in 2014).”
So what’s next for the Strib? Editorial Page Editor Scott Gillespie said the paper hasn’t decided whether to hire another staff editorial cartoonist. For now, they’re running a mix of syndicated cartoons.
“We’ll look at the potential candidate pool, consider how best to use our resources, and take a fresh look at all possible options,” Gillespie wrote in an email. “I’m thankful we haven’t had to answer this question for more than 40 years.”
As for Sack, this week he’s meeting with Strib execs to discuss revising The First And Only Book of Sack, a collection of his Strib work published in 2017. He likes to oil paint, and mused about getting into sculpture and 3D art.
And while Sack’s hand may be betraying him, his wit remains intact. “In some of the letters I got from readers this week, some of them say that I should run for public office,” he said. “I tell them I would, but I’d be afraid someone would make mean cartoons about me.”