Why Strib editorial cartoonist Steve Sack decided it was time to sign
Steve Sack can’t remember exactly how old he was when he drew his first cartoon – pre-kindergarten, sure. But he remembers what it was and where he found the paper to draw it on.
“I drew a picture of a dinosaur, showed it to my mom, and she was thrilled,” he said. “I can’t tell you how supercharged it was. For a small child, you make your mom happy, you want to start over. It was my encouragement.
“My grandfather worked for the railroad. He gave us pads of paper and pencils. I guess he stole stationery from the office. As soon as I was old enough, I opened this drawer, took out my paper and made my little drawings.
This 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 has delighted readers (most of them, anyway) with a distinctive blend of pointed opinion, whimsy, and mischief.
The best cartoonists, like the best columnists, make readers laugh, cry and think. It’s Sack, whose pencil and politics lean to the left. By awarding him the Pulitzer in 2013 (he was a finalist three other times), the Pulitzer Council quoted his “vivid, distinctive cartoons that used creative metaphors for high-impact results”.
Recently, however, Sack’s cartoons disappeared from the pages of the Strib. Its last confusing ex-president Donald Trump and Fox News host Tucker Carlson for their support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, published on February 26. Then, nothing, for almost two months. Some readers feared a recurrence of the cancer that forced Sack to take sick leave in 2018.
It was not this. About eight months ago, Sack said, he began to feel numbness in the fingers of his right hand (drawing). Numbness and tingling quickly spread to his whole hand, then to his arm, up to his shoulder. A neurologist diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome and nerve problems.
Although Sack, 68, has had surgery and says his hand is “sort of” improving, he has decided to retire. Because the drawing remains problematic, he signed via a short write-up in the Sunday Strib on April 24.
“I just have trouble getting my hand to do precisely what I want it to do,” Sack said in a phone interview. “For my drawing, I need this fine motor skills, these delicate little lines that I want to draw.
“It’s like writing. There are a lot of different moves in everything you do. You move the pencil up and down and side to side. Until then, I had complete mastery of it, so I noticed it right away. I welcomed it for a while, but then it started to feel more and more pronounced. So I saw a neurologist and looked into it.
All his life, cartooning has been as second nature to Sack as breathing. Besides his work on Strib, he collaborated for years with another artist on Doodles, a Sunday cartoon for children featuring puzzles, riddles and word games. “I wanted an excuse to draw monsters and aliens and all the stuff I used to do when I was little,” said Sack, who quit Doodles a few years ago. Even lying in a hospital bed and undergoing cancer treatment, Sack drew cartoons. “It’s hard for me to imagine not doing it,” he said.
And readers couldn’t imagine going without their daily cartoon Sack. 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 current colleagues, even people from his old neighborhood of West St. Paul. He tries to answer everyone, but typing makes his carpal tunnel worse. A lifelong two-finger typist, Sack has found himself down to one, and things are moving slowly.
“You feel like there are people watching and reading,” Sack said. “But I have to say I was really stunned and blown away by the reaction.
“The most touching was a woman who said that she had seen all my cartoons and loved them. She said that several years ago, due to a health problem, she had lost her view, and she would have her husband read them and describe them to her every day. It just kind of blew my mind.
Editorial cartoonists are a dying breed in today’s ever-shrinking newspaper industry, and Sack’s retirement isn’t helping. Today there are less than 30 full-time cartoonist jobs in newspapers, according to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonistsdown from around 150 in the early 1980s. The Pioneer Press lost the talented Kirk Anderson over a decade ago in one of their many downsizings, leaving Sack alone in the Twin Cities.
Some newspapers rely on syndicated cartoons to save money, while others don’t run them at all, avoiding the backlash when a cartoon angers a readership cohort or an advertiser. with deep pockets.
But Sack thinks there’s still a place in the short-attention-span 24/7 news cycle for a well-executed political cartoon, even if it annoys readers. “I think the reaction I got from our readers would speak for it,” he said.
And don’t run Sack on editors that completely remove cartoons. “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 understand that. It was part of the deal. But lately, it seems some publishers are being overly cautious with this. One guy said, if he could find a cartoonist who could please everyone, he would direct it. Well, good luck with that. You might as well publish Marmaduke on the editorial page.
Twice in his career, Sack worried about being the next cartoonist: first, when the Minneapolis Star and Tribune merged in 1982 (the Tribune had hired him the year before, so he lacked seniority ), then when Avista Capital Partners bought the Strib from McClatchy in 2007. The first time around, the Strib opted to keep both cartoonist Sack and Star Craig MacIntosh; they later collaborated on Doodles. The second time around, Sack said he was among more than 100 Avista staff members targeted for takeovers.
“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 ask me out. I had no intention of taking it.
“Honestly, I really wasn’t worried about it. I had enough seniority that they pretty much hollowed out the paper before they got to me. I was more concerned with what they were doing. We lost a lot of good people when these guys owned us. A consortium of New York investment bankers is as charming as it sounds. They emptied us. They were horrible. They bankrupted us. 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 had not decided to hire another editorial cartoonist. For now, they are airing a mix of syndicated cartoons.
“We will review the pool of potential candidates, consider how best to use our resources, and take a fresh look at all possible options,” Gillespie wrote in an email. “I’m grateful we haven’t had to answer that question for over 40 years.”
As for Sack, he is meeting with Strib executives this week to discuss revising The First And Only Book of Sack, a collection of his Strib work published in 2017. He enjoys painting in oils and thinks about sculpture and painting. 3d art.
And though Sack’s hand may betray him, his spirit remains intact. “In some of the letters I got from readers this week, some of them say I should run for public office,” he said. “I tell them I will, but I’m afraid someone will make mean cartoons about me.”