A Port Townsend cartoonist takes on housing insecurity, mental health and community policing in an anthropomorphic style
Photo by Andrew Wiese
Nhatt Nichols' weekly comic strip holds a mirror to her small community of Port Townsend. What's reflected is often biting and profound criticism of its systemic problems.
By Jon Williams
Dignity City editor
Cartoonist Nhatt Nichols observes the world from an idyllic spot on two acres near a lake on the Olympic Peninsula. Her 500-square-foot home has a studio space, which she calls a “shack.” She shares the small quarters with her partner, two dogs and a cat. It’s crowded.
But Nichols knows how to get the most out of small spaces. From this tiny spot in the woods, she takes on large topics such as social justice, homelessness, community policing, the local city council and mental health.
Outside her door are the birds, the raccoons, the squirrels and other critters that provide inspiration for a world Nichols creates each week in a small corner of the Port Townsend Leader’s opinion page. The animals in her editorial cartoon, called “Nhatt Attack!” take on human character and confront the issues facing Port Townsend’s power brokers. Crows squawk about the police; a cat scratches away at the local court system and turkeys are your annoying relatives, sitting around the table at Thanksgiving talking politics.
From its perch on the eastern edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where the Salish Sea begins its 100-mile trek to the Pacific Ocean, Port Townsend hangs on a bluff overlooking a sea of tourists who gawk at the Victorian architecture while wandering the charming streets. How can this place be facing such a non-charming issue as housing insecurity? It is. And from Nichols’ anthropomorphic world, a wise heron sits by the water and says, “…people need to feel stable and safe, instead of like a problem that needs to be solved.”
Nichols knows Port Townsend’s problems well. She saw many of the city’s issues coming on from the other side of the country — in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
“I’m familiar with the consumer and tourist culture in Martha’s Vineyard,” said Nichols about the wealthy Massachusetts island community where she once lived. “In Port Townsend, I came with knowledge. I’ve seen the future, and it’s not good. You don’t want to be the next Martha’s Vineyard — but I’ve slowly watched it happen here.”
Port Townsend’s housing costs have far outpaced what people who work there can afford. It’s an issue depicted recently in the popular Netflix drama, “The Maid,” which was set in the picturesque port city — although it was filmed in Canada where the film industry can get cheaper labor and tax incentives. Port Townsend’s businesses are suffering staff shortages because they can’t afford to pay workers enough to live there.
“Nhatt Attack” takes on the housing dilemma by depicting a pair of owls who are discussing the city’s nesting crisis and its insecurity, homelessness and mental health toll. When one owl suggests the possibility of building more nests to resolve the problem, a NIMBY owl replies, “Don’t be ridiculous. That would drive down the value of our own nest.”
Her critters farm the area’s fertile landscape of economic hardship, often making the connection between homelessness and mental health.
“Losing my home would make me go crazy,” she said. “It’s really hard to make good decisions and take care of yourself when you don’t have a stable living situation. A lot of people have mental health problems that can be easy to overcome, but without support, they can’t. I don’t know how anyone can take care of themselves when they’re scrambling to survive.”
To combat the problem, local police want to expand their numbers and equip new officers with tasers. Their desire to tackle Port Townsend’s issues with more weapons hatches a two-cartoon discussion between chickens who wonder how tasers can possibly be a safe alternative to guns. One chicken explains to the other, “The fact that they seem safe is why officers end up using them inappropriately. Over an 11 year period over 500 people died from being tasered.” That’s not a local number, but the point is that people have been killed by taser-wielding police. Do they really need more weapons? Or will providing secure housing in Port Townsend alleviate some of the issues that the local police are facing?
In explaining her first two-part comic in The Leader, Nichols writes in her blog, “I’m hoping beyond hope that I can get enough info out there to stop it from happening.”
Which leads to the question: Can cartoons bring about institutional change?
“I’m a pretty pragmatic person,” said Nichols. “I do see what’s wrong and how badly we’re treating each other on a systemic level. I would love to say there would be an answer and people are going to figure it out. I hope it’s true.”
Nichols’ subject matter can be pretty daunting. The animals are there to lighten the mood and often provide a gaze that isn’t necessarily our own. But they have another reason for being, too.
“I ran into a problem when I started the cartoon. In June of 2020, I realized I’d never drawn anyone who wasn’t white in my comics,” she said. “I was shocked at myself. I had never even thought about it. I put out an apology and I corrected it.
“There are a lot of things to take into consideration when depicting things positively or negatively. So, I brought in the animals to make sure there was no pre-conceived message.”
As an example, Nichols said, “We’ve never had mass incarceration of raccoons, so they’ve been a good way of bringing a blank slate to the concept.”
A WORLD VIEW
Nichols grew up on top of a mountain outside of Tonasket Okanogan County, in north-central Washington. There was no electricity. Her parents were survivalists.
“They’re very separate, and they do things very separate,” she said of her parents. They were, “… you-have-to-look-out-for-yourself kind of people. My father used to say, ‘Specialization is for insects. You have to be good at everything.’”
From that mountaintop, Nichols learned how to observe the world around her “as a permanent outsider,” she writes on her blog.
She initially wanted to be a writer, but in her 20s, she discovered a love for comics and began drawing. She spent two years at the Royal Drawing School in London, graduating with a master’s degree in 2011. She moved to Brooklyn, New York, then on to Martha’s Vineyard. She ventured back to Washington for a friend’s wedding in Port Townsend. She didn’t expect to stay. That was six years ago.
Nichols admits that even though she graduated from art school, she finds drawing to be a daily challenge. “It’s still hard. I have a formula, but if I try to get outside of that formula, it’s just hard.”
She gave fine art a shot but it wasn’t for her. Chasing wealthy art consumers proves difficult for many artists. In the end, Nichols prefers the influence she gains from editorial cartooning. “I do a little bit of fine art,” she said. “It’s a funny thing to talk to wealthy people about climate change, then ask them to support artists instead of to stop polluting.”
‘THIS PARTY OF THE SOFT THINGS’
Drawing isn’t the only outlet for Nichols’ creativity. She writes poetry and illustrates the words. In 2021, Nichols published a book-length poem complete with graphite drawings. She describes it as a picture book for adults.
The book, “This Party of The Soft Things,” was inspired by journalist Alan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us,” which ponders what would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from Earth.
“I would read a chapter [of Weisman’s book] every day and free-write from my notes. At the end of the book, I turned all my free-writing into one long poem.” Then she created 50 graphite drawings for the book. The whole process took the better part of a year.
Nichols knows that taking on a small town’s problems in a three-panel cartoon, or writing book-length poetry about the world without people, can seem depressing and a bit misanthropic at times.
“I do love people. They are good and kind in general and capable of loving each other,” she said. “My publisher called me ‘oddly hopeful.’”
There is indeed a thread of optimism in “Nhatt Attack!” She is a firm believer that things truly can change for the better.
“I grew up in privacy — but with an interest in politics,” she said. Those things may seem instinctively at odds, but the paradox is another example of how Nichols can fold the entire world into a small room in a 500-square-foot “shack” on the Olympic Peninsula and crank out something meaningful in three panels voiced by a crow.