Artist, storyteller finds connection in Star Wars, D&D

Star Wars Celebration, the biggest event of the year for the fandom, kicks off next week in Chicago. If you’re going, prepare to see plenty of women rocking the designs of Alyssa Bradley on T-shirts, stickers, patches, and tote bags.

Annalise Ophelian, director of upcoming docuseries Looking for Leia, enlisted Alyssa in bringing her ideas for the female-forward Star Wars merchandise to life. The one-of-a-kind items the pair created are meant to promote Looking for Leia at Celebration and other conventions.

With clever and catchy slogans, like “Hutt Slayer” and “Ask Me About My Feminist Fan Agenda,” vibrant and iconic graphics (think lightsabers and Leia buns), and an emphasis on the Star Wars characters women have embraced (Aphra, Enfys, Ciena, Q’ira, Bazine, and Oola … oh my!), the designs are also fulfilling the dreams of women who’ve always craved this kind of merchandise.

(Annalise writes beautifully about the philosophy behind the merch here.)

A media production specialist at Michigan State University whose love of storytelling manifests itself in art, illustration, design, photography, videography, a webcomic, and a role as a D&D Dungeon Master, Alyssa grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy with her Dad. The flame of the fandom was sparked anew by the release of the prequels and, later, her involvement with Looking for Leia, which allowed her to connect with other Star Wars devotees like never before.

A fan of Marvel, Dragon Age, The Adventure Zone, Disney, Spider-Man, and geek fashion, Alyssa recently chatted with me about girl power, intersectional feminism, representation, and the importance of approaching art and storytelling with intention. 

If you see her at Celebration next week, you’re going to want to tell her how much you love her work. You can also snap up  Alyssa’s Looking for Leia designs on TeePublic, follow her on Instagram, @miss.lys, and check out more of her work at www.whimsydesignandillustration.com.

You’ve described yourself as an “illustrator, designer, storyteller and Dungeon Master with a penchant for the whimsical and nerdy.” Your fan art and original work can be seen at whimsydesignandillustration.com. Was art a big part of your childhood?

Oh, absolutely, the arts have always been a huge part of my life. As a kid I was obsessed with Disney movies (like pretty much everyone else), I was enrolled in dance and art classes, crafts were my life, and I was reading fantasy books before kindergarten. I’ve also always had this compulsion to make things. Even at a super young age I simply couldn’t just consume my favorite movie. I had to color, or act it out, or dress up as my favorite character (face paint and all).

My absolute favorite thing was tracing paper. I used to take tons of that paper and trace characters from picture books and then make dolls out of them. I couldn’t draw yet so that was the next best thing! My parents are both nerdy in their own ways, and always appreciated and encouraged creativity so it was just a totally natural, normal thing. They were always getting me involved in every creative opportunity they could.

You’re also a photographer and videographer and work as a media production specialist at Michigan State University. What does your job entail?

I lead a team of Michigan State film and media students, and our main responsibility is to create video content for faculty, staff, and students. This includes a variety of video needs, from recording guest speakers and presentations, to livestreaming events, to collaborating with faculty to create video lectures and other content for their online courses.

I also enjoy teaching people how to make their own quality video, no previous skill or equipment needed, so I hold training workshops throughout the year. My job is fun! I get to connect with a lot of faculty that are teaching really cool classes and connecting in creative, meaningful ways with their students.

When and why did you decide you wanted to pursue art, media, and storytelling for a living?

There wasn’t necessarily a specific moment where I had this revelation, per se. I’m someone who just loves all the visual arts and enjoys making things in a variety of mediums. When I was a kid, it was my dream to be a Disney animator, then I wanted to be a concept artist, an author, illustrator for comics …

Then I wanted to be a designer, or a filmmaker. I often wondered why I kept changing my mind so much. It was really frustrating, I felt like I was being flaky and would never have a successful career if I always kept jumping around. At some point though, I realized that the common denominator of all these interests was actually the storytelling. Then it all made sense. Why limit myself to only one career when I can follow my one true passion and accomplish it in a variety of ways that are still satisfying?

It’s hard sometimes because we are constantly told that we have to pick just one career path and do that for the rest of our life. But based on what I have seen from my time in the professional world, that’s just not how it always works. So that’s where I’m at right now, just making all kinds of stuff, telling stories through different mediums, and having fun with the exploration.

One of my favorite of your recent projects is a series of designs you did for T-shirts, tote bags, and other merchandise available at TeePublic, for the upcoming docuseries Looking For Leia. The designs feature the names of favorite female Star Wars characters and slogans like, “Ask Me About My Feminist Fan Agenda” and “Girls Rule the Galaxy.” Honestly, as a woman who loves Star Wars, this is the kind of merch I’ve been wanting since I was 12. What was the thought process behind these wonderful designs?

Thank you! This is really sweet to hear. So first of all, Looking for Leia is just a really fun project. It’s a documentary that celebrates Star Wars geek girls in all stages of life. It’s empowering, uplifting, inclusive — and of course — feminist. By the way, for those unfamiliar with the documentary, you can learn way more about it at www.lookingforleia.com.

The brains of the operation is the director Annalise Ophelian and she’s definitely the driving force behind the designs as well. We click really well creatively, so she comes up with the slogans and then provides me with a few general design notes, then I can pretty much instantly visualize what she is looking for and get it on paper.

When making her visions come to life, my main goal is to capture the wonderful spirit of the project in all the designs and illustrations. It’s such a joyful experience to be a part of, and it’s something I’m passionate about so I think that comes through the art as well.

As a complete side note, Annalise made all the name list designs, and there were a lot of really fun emails with both of us and Amy Richau (the researcher on the project) while we all brainstormed as many ladies as we could to include in the lists. That was a blast.

I’m especially fond of your Hutt Slayer design. It’s pretty amazing. Tell me about how you came up with it.

Again, this one was totally Annalise’s idea. The title “Hutt Slayer” is a pretty new addition to Star Wars canon and while people love it, we hadn’t seen any merch of it yet. So, Annalise was looking for a cool, tattoo-style design featuring all the elements from the Hutt Slayer herself. This one was a lot of fun to make, especially since I have always had a particular fondness for Hutt Slayer Leia.

As a kid, one of my favorite toys was the action figure in that outfit because it came with a sweet cannon and axe. Whenever I played with it, Leia was always kicking butt. I still have the toy, I love it, and I love that we got to create a design that evokes that same sense of empowerment.

These items were designed for fans to rep at Star Wars Celebration and other conventions. What’s it like to see women who love Star Wars rocking these designs?

It’s really surreal, honestly, and it’s been so fun to see how positively these have been received. Funny story, I’m not new to making apparel designs. Back in college, I used to create shirt designs and submit them to all the “Tee-a-day” sites that were really popular at the time. I had small amount of success in that market, and had a few designs picked up and sold but mostly it was low sales or just outright rejections. I remember one of my friends told me that my designs weren’t selling because they were “too feminine.”

Now, seeing the reception to the designs in the Looking for Leia store is so crazy, and it’s not just women who love them either! I make designs that I personally would want to wear myself, and usually that ends up looking really feminine and whimsical, so it’s really cool to see people connect with that same aesthetic and love it as much as I do. Looking back, I also have to admit it gives me a small amount satisfaction and I’m really glad I didn’t change my style or artistic expression.

You’re not new to the Looking for Leia project. You created illustrations and designs for its crowdfunding campaigns and you’re also a second unit director and camera person. How did you first come on board the series?

So my involvement in Looking for Leia started by taking a wild stab in the dark and everything that followed has exceeded my wildest expectations. Back in spring 2017, I remember reading an article on The Mary Sue about the project, and I just remember thinking, “Ok, I HAVE to be a part of this, my entire life has pretty much led to this moment.”

So I went to the Looking for Leia website and filled out the contact form and sent over my portfolio. Just hours later I had an email from Annalise wanting to talk to me more about my skills and discuss creating an exclusive illustration for the Kickstarter campaign that was about to launch. I honestly had not been expecting to ever hear back, and I was absolutely floored by her message.

Anyway, the rest is history, and even though I’ve been working on this project with Annalise for about two years, it’s still completely surreal to have constant opportunities to pour my passions and skills into this incredibly important project. I mean, I would have been happy to just send in a quote or something! But to be officially part of the team helping make this thing happen is incredible and I’m just so thankful.

Also, moral of the story: If there is ever something you want to get connected with, just reach out and ask! You never know what amazing opportunities could come out of it, and really the worst thing that could happen is that you just don’t hear back.

You’re an intersectional feminist who’s very into “girl power,” as well as representation in general, AND you’re a big Star Wars fan, so this project sounds perfect for you! What’s the experience of working on it been like so far?

It’s been a completely life-changing experience. I’ve loved Star Wars my whole life, but it was mostly something I just enjoyed with my dad, and later my husband and a couple friends. I was hardly involved in the Star Wars fandom itself, mostly because I couldn’t find a place in it where I fit, and the fandom is just overwhelming in general for a lot of reasons.

Working on Looking for Leia has connected me with so many amazing and wonderful women that have completely rocked my world. I’ve met female engineers that build droids, and discovered lady podcasters that have some of the most intelligent Star Wars commentary I have ever heard. I’ve seen women that are constantly having conversations about representation in Star Wars, and celebrating the strides that have been made, while also reminding us that there is still a long way to go.

The ladies I have met through this project have all been incredibly welcoming, too, and for the first time in my life I feel like I have a corner of the fandom that I belong in, and I have some genuine new friends.

I could go on for ages about all the reasons why Looking for Leia is so important. One of the main things I always think about is that I hope are other girls and women who might feel alone in the fandom now, but will see this documentary and feel like they can —and are actually able to — reach out and connect with the women they have seen, and make some real life friends.

When did you first discover George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away and what are your earliest memories of the franchise?

I seriously don’t remember a time in my life before Star Wars. One of my very first memories was watching A New Hope with my dad when I was 3 or 4. Star Wars has always been this special thing that we shared. We watched all the movies on VHS, went to the theater when it was re-released in the ‘90s (yes, I insisted in going to the movies with my super long hair done up in Leia buns). I always loved Star Wars, but the spark died down a bit until the Prequels came out. That was kind of my renaissance and sparked my love for the series again and then it pretty much hasn’t stopped.

What are some of your favorite films, characters, and other properties (TV series, books, etc.) within the Star Wars Universe?

This is so broad! I could go on forever about all my favorite things but I’ll try to narrow it down. If I had to pick I would say that Leia, Luke, Ahsoka, and Rey are my favorite characters, with Kylo Ren getting an honorable mention.

In terms of films, again I can’t pick just one, but A New Hope is my favorite because I have the most happy memories associated with it, and then, sorry fam, but The Last Jedi is my other favorite. That movie had everything I ever wanted, it’s gorgeous, and it makes me cry a lot. So I love it with all my heart.

The Clone Wars is great, of course, but specifically I love the Mortis Arc in that series. It dives into some weird stuff that I want to see explored more in the Star Wars universe. I also love the Princess Leia comics. Ugh, there are so many amazing comics I want to read but haven’t had the chance yet. Like Aphra. I know I will love her, I just need to sit down and read her dang books! I just started reading Queen’s Shadow the other day and I’m already in love with it.

What are some of your favorite fandoms besides Star Wars?

I’m obsessed with Marvel and Dragon Age! Clearly, I have an extreme fondness for massive worlds with intricate lore and tons of loveable characters. Also, The Adventure Zone (plus D&D in general) has the best community I have been a part of so that’s a space that makes me really happy to be in. I love all things Disney + Disney Parks, and I’m super into Overwatch and Mass Effect over in the gaming space.

I heard you have a particular fondness for Spider-Man. What did you think of Into the Spider-Verse?

Oh, yes, I adore Spider-Man so much. Long story short, he’s what got me into actually reading comics and is responsible for helping me fully embrace the nerd lifestyle. I only say this half-jokingly, but Into the Spider-Verse is one of the greatest films of all time. Ok, I’m kind of biased because I was already really into the Spider-Verse comics, but it truly is groundbreaking in pretty much every way.

Seriously, I think about this movie on a daily basis, it’s just SO important! One of the biggest reasons being how accessible it is to kids. I think that often we get so wrapped up in comics and comic book movies and think they have to be mature and grounded and only consumed by adults. But superheroes are so important for kids to connect with too! In fact, comics have always been for kids, and that’s something we shouldn’t forget in nerd culture.

In Spider-Verse specifically, it is incredibly important for all kids to be able to see that and have an incredible hero like Miles to look up to, and then be told that they can wear the mask too and be heroes. Ugh, that part kills me every time, it’s amazing.

How did you get into D&D and take on the role of Dungeon Master?

Funny enough, I got into D&D through podcasts. A lot of people would probably say that The Adventure Zone is the gateway drug to D&D, and that was absolutely the case for me. I started listening to TAZ because I kept hearing about it, and I already adored the McElroys.

Long story short, the Balance Arc of that podcast really changed my life and brought me out of a dark place. It also made me realize that D&D was the complete opposite of what I always assumed. It was a collaborating storytelling experience, which was extremely fascinating to me.

Basically, after listening to TAZ, I spent a year trying to get into a D&D group and was only able to play a single one shot. Meanwhile, I was spending dozens of hours relistening to TAZ and watching Critical Role, but had barely played myself because I couldn’t find a DM.

This past summer, my friend and I, who had both been in separate one shot sessions, were talking about how badly we wanted to play together. But, we had no idea who was going to run the game. At that point, I decided that I was just going to figure out how to DM myself so I could actually play with my friends. It took me so long to jump into the role because I was really scared that I was going to be boring, or that my improv was going to be so awkward. It was silly.

But after that first session with my friend and our husbands, it all clicked. I ended up LOVING the role. The organization, writing, and world-building are therapeutic in a way, and I enjoy guiding my friends through fun adventures. Also, as someone with social anxiety, the roleplaying of D&D has been a really great outlet to help me better cope with unexpected situations. Since DM’ing, I’ve legitimately noticed a difference in my social interactions, and I have a lot more confidence handling difficult situations. So that’s been really cool.

Women are becoming so much more visible in the D&D community. What do you think about that?

I always had this preconceived notion that the only people that played D&D were dudes in comic shops that were hardcore into strategy and math. I had a number of guys ask me to play over the years and they were also very analytically minded dudes, which isn’t a bad thing, but it played into my assumptions and didn’t sound like something I would have an interest in. I have a creative brain, and I didn’t think D&D was about creativity at all. Ha!

Once I actually got into the D&D community however, I was shocked to find that it’s extremely inclusive and welcoming. My first big clue into this was when I looked through the Player Handbook for the first time. There are tons of beautiful women of all races and practical armor all over the place in that book, and that was not something I was used to seeing in fantasy.

I was also really surprised to see women elevated a lot in the fandom itself. As with any fandom, obviously there is harassment towards women, and D&D is no different. But I’ve definitely noticed that people are quick to jump on the hate when it pops up and then work to uplift each other. I love seeing women not only play, but also DM as well. Satine Phoenix, for example, is delightful. It’s really inspiring seeing ladies take charge and lead a group through an experience where everyone is having a blast. I just love seeing ladies be leaders.

Your geeky interests definitely pop up a lot in your illustrations. How would you describe your style? What equipment, materials, and techniques do you use the most?

Probably the best way to describe it is “whimsical with a splash of Disney.” Pretty much all of my art is digital, which means it was either drawn in Photoshop with a Wacom tablet or designed in Illustrator. I’m addicted to being able to hit control + z whenever I mess up. Can’t do that with pencil and paper, even though I love traditional mediums.

Who do you consider to be your biggest influences

Oh, this list is long, but I’ll try to condense and provide a wide range. Jen Bartel, Karen Hallion, and Babs Tarr, aside from having gorgeous work, showed me that you can still have an incredibly successful career in male dominated entertainment fields even with an extremely feminine, killer style.

Carrie Fisher, Lady Gaga, and Ava DuVernay are some amazing boss ladies that have always had complete control over their work and have made incredible changes in the entertainment industry, and I really admire that and am inspired by them as I navigate the professional world.

Not all my influences are ladies though! Right now I really admire the work of Taika Watiti and Jordan Peele. Both have an incredible grasp on both comedy and more dramatic, horror elements. I definitely have been studying their work a lot to try and grow in my own storytelling abilities.

You’ve said that story is integral to your art, that nothing you create is “without meaning.” Why is this important to you and how does it manifest itself in your art?

I’m someone who believes strongly in intentionality. I remember during critique sessions in college, we would always be asked, “why?” Why did we choose this subject matter? Why did we pick this color palette? Interestingly a lot of people would say, “I don’t know.” That was always crazy to me. Art is a series of decisions, and you make those decisions for specific reasons, whether they are conscious or subconscious. To me, the answer to that “why” is the soul of whatever you make.

Also, when I say all art has meaning and purpose, sometimes the purpose isn’t necessarily obvious to the viewer but it is really just for the artist. For example, sometimes the entire point of a drawing is because I have this emotion that’s stuck in my mind and I just need to get it out on paper in a visual way, even though I don’t really expect anyone else to “get” it.

Sometimes I’m trying to get something specific across to the viewer. It’s so easy in life to fall into autopilot mode, and I try to use my art as a time to pause and reflect, and to be intentional with what I’m making, whether it’s for myself or others. There are so many careless acts in this world and the last thing I want is for my work to be careless, too.

One of the stories you’re telling is Pandora, a female-led superhero webcomic. Where did the idea for the project come from? What are your plans for the comic?

Once upon a time, back in 2014, in fact, my good friend and collaborator Jess Schultz and I were reading a lot of work in comics by amazing female creators. Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona was running at the time, we loved Strong Female Character by Molly Knox Ostertag, and Babs Tarr was drawing Batgirl. I believe Mildred Louis was also kicking off Agents of the Realm and we got really into that webcomic as well.

There was also a lot of talk about how Marvel movies were oversaturated and that the superhero genre was supposedly dying. Which, that’s crazy because I could, and still can, think of a lot of stories in the genre that haven’t even been touched yet.

Another thing that inspired us was our interest in villains and the line between antagonist and protagonist roles. We could think of a lot of male villains in comics that were written with depth and emotion and intrigue. Meanwhile, a majority of female villains in comics (while still amazing) are either completely caricaturized and over the top and/or sexualized. Not that this is bad, or that well written villain ladies don’t exist, but we just couldn’t immediately think of any compared to the guys.

So, our goal with Pandora has always been to tell a story about a villainess from the female gaze. We wanted to see a dynamic, emotional, compelling, and fun villain that comes home at night and plays video games, and loves fandom as much as we do. We wanted to see a story about powerful women and explore superhero storytelling as a form of modern mythology. We wanted to write a story about two superhumans that are still extremely human. Pandora is all of these things; it’s the story that we have always wanted to see.

Since it has taken us 5 years to develop this thing, mostly because we have rewritten a TON, we know this is going to be a long, slow journey. But that’s ok because we are just having fun with it. For now, we plan to upload the comic a few times a year in “episodes,” which is around 10 pages.

Because we are dropping a lot of pages at once, it takes a lot longer for us to create them and there will be long waits between updates. But we hope the reading experience for everyone will be much better than updating a page at a time, which always felt kind of disjointed to us. The reception to our first update has been amazing and really encouraging, so we are really excited for the future.

You also do a couple podcasts, My Boyfriend is an NPC (with Jess Schultz) and Try Me (with your husband, Joel Bradley). Those sound fun. Tell me more about them and how they came to be.

Oh, yes, the podcasts. I love those and had a lot of fun with them, but with all the things I’ve had going on those fell wayyy back to the furthest back burner I have. I started those when I got really into the podcast work, and I wanted to figure out how to make one myself.

My Boyfriend is an NPC was a fun thing with Jess where we could just talk about nerd stuff, and it was also kind of a demo for us to figure out how to work on a regular project together to prepare us for Pandora.

Try Me was something that my husband Joel and I started because we wanted to work on a project together, too. We are both nerds but we have interests in different areas. So the premise of the show is that we get the other person to try a game, movie, book, etc., and then talk about our thoughts and experience.

So, I love Hamilton so I had Joel listen to that for one episode, and then in another I watched the Matrix since I had never seen it before. It was a lot of fun but ultimately ended up being a lot of recording time and prep work, and we gradually had a harder time finding opportunities to record on a regular schedule. If I ever get more time one day I would love to pick it back up again!

You seem like you enjoy rocking some geek fashion. What are some of your favorite geek fashion items and why do you enjoy expressing yourself in this way?

As a kid, I was always obsessed with dressing up and that definitely stuck with me in life. It’s a fun form of expression to take a story or character that I have connected so deeply with on the inside, and then come up with a fun outfit that reflects that on the outside.

You know, some days are hard and you just need to put on a Wonder Woman-themed outfit so you feel like you can kick butt and take on the world! Also, I love cosplaying but I have no patience or skill for any of the construction. So the closet cosplay strategy is pretty perfect for me.

We are in the golden era of geek fashion and I’m reveling in every second of it. I remember when Her Universe first launched, and I was infatuated with all the gorgeous t-shirts that were designed for women! I hardly had any nerd clothes before this because 90% of nerd fashion was a character of your choice on a men’s black t-shirt.

Now, I have so many places to get my geek clothes and accessories! Obviously, I adore Her Universe, and also I stan Jordandene hardcore. I think half of my closet are her shirts at this point. A lot of my jewelry comes from Etsy. I have so many themed outfits at this point that I love, I don’t think I could pick a favorite.

Do you have any future goals, dreams and plans for your art and/or career?

I used to want to follow specific careers, like a Disney animator, or an illustrator of comics for Marvel, etc. But as I’ve progressed in my creative journey I’ve found so much joy telling stories and making things with other talented people. Where I stand now, I would be thrilled to do anything in the entertainment industry and work with and meet as many amazing people as possible. Of course, the real dream is to work for Marvel, Disney, or Lucasfilm.

What’s left on your geek bucket list?

Oh, I have so many things! I want to attend a movie premiere, since I have just recently discovered that regular people can get invited to those apparently. I will definitely be visiting Galaxy’s Edge at Disney World as soon as I’m able!

Attending San Diego Comic-Con is a must, and I have at least 5 different cons where I would love to get into Artist Alley. In terms of creative work, I have really gotten into the horror genre in the last year or so, so one of my goals in 2019 is to stretch my writing muscles and write a horror screenplay. We will see how it goes!

Art by Alyssa Bradley. 

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