Artist Thoele Sarradet is a creator of characters, and it all started with Bugs Bunny.
“Bugs wasn't someone who I perceived had a gender," she says. "They were so relatable. They weren't this strong, all powerful creature. They were just clever and liked to drive their enemies insane.”
Anyone meeting Sarradet, can never be sure which voice they'll be greeted in. Sometimes she speaks in one that’s half Bugs Bunny, half demon.
Sarradet meets the world's absurdity with more absurdity, even as her muscular, powerful frame grounds her in the room with authority and grace.
Today it's not evil Bugs, but a different elaborately conceived character. Imagine that aunt who's voting for Trump and believes President Obama is an American-hating Muslim and a Communist; who loves mood boards, reruns of The Nanny, fried chicken and pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks.
Characters like this fill the pages of her comic, Offtrack, a feminist, science-fiction train ride to self-validation for its main character, Len, a young but fearless girl. After selling all her memories to board a mystical train, she travels through a kaleidoscopic nightmare that inspires moments of intense self-reflection.
Sarradet has loved trains since childhood, when she realized she was a girl, though her gender was assigned as male at birth. The idea of being transported was a hopeful one as she worked to accept this realization.
“I love the concept of jumping on a moving platform and jumping off into a new world,” she says.
Sarradet began drawing characters at a young age too, inspired by Christian anime, Cartoon Network shows and the androgyny of the anthropomorphic characters that appear in so many cartoons.
“My first exposure to anime was a Christian anime called Super Book," she says. "It was about a boy and a girl going back in time [and] exploring Bible stories. Other shows were on UPN 21; My 27. [It was] anime from the early to late '90s. I was fascinated with the androgyny of the characters [and] the seriousness of everything."
The gender neutrality of the characters Sarradet saw on TV gave her strength at a time when “trans” wasn’t even in her vocabulary.
“It was something I could put myself into," she says. "I related to a lot of girl characters growing up, but gender ambiguous characters were more easily approachable ... I wouldn't face rejection if I was open about imitating them.”
Sarradet's approach to art is partly rooted in her upbringing in the evangelical church in the '90s.
"In my childhood, everything was slow, boring, controlled, anticipated, flat. I daydreamed all the time. I sang all the time," she says. "There was always something to hide from: my parents' beliefs, demons that I thought were lurking. It sounds silly but I saw these cartoons and saw characters finding solutions via the tools they could either create or choose to solve their problems.”
Offtrack's characters still have a lot in common with her first creations.
“These characters [in Offtrack] are archetypes that have slept within me, [and that] I found appropriate to reawaken," Sarradet says. "These are energies I hold dear that need to take a level of sentience so I can understand what I’ve been trying to say."
She describes Len as “an angry young woman cutting through despair with self-justice.” Although she doesn't present the protagonist as a mirror image of herself, there are common threads between the creator and her creation.
Like Len, Sarradet experienced frustration with being different and didn't receive empathy from her family or peers. Instead she took responsibility for transforming her painful experiences through art.
“I didn't realize I had the option to be transgender until after high school," she says. "I would have had I been more positively exposed to transgender people. All I had to go off of was Maury and Jerry Springer. That shit should be banned. I didn't know I could identify as a woman. I always was, [but] the accessibility of that realization was not afforded to me in my youth. I had to conceptually break down the structures of gender and how I understood them.”
Sarradet hopes Offtrack will empower people who are disturbed by the world they see around them.
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“Westernized views on gender are patriarchal," she says. "In that system, where men are expected to hold power, everyone loses. Men are encouraged to get rid of their ability to empathize with others in order to have access to power. Women are encouraged to take on extra emotional labor as the caretaker of [their] husbands and as the predominant child caretaker.
"Obviously not everyone follows this; there are people with different experiences in this system," she continues. "[But it's my opinion] that transgender women suffer from being perceived as 'man failures.'"
This summer, Sarradet exhibited the panels of the first six issues of Offtrack at a solo show at Beefhaus gallery in Exposition Park. She is working on volume seven, and hopes to continue to show the series in galleries as it progresses.
“I had a near existential crisis when I didn't draw in middle school," Sarradet says. "It was a way of validating myself. Page by page, I could summon something.”