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Celebrating the 'Badass Women' of The Walking Dead universe at New York Comic Con

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Oct 10, 2021, 5:40 PM EDT

As The Walking Dead universe continues to expand, one thing that's been consistent with the franchise since the very beginning has been the presence of well-developed female characters. That theme was on display on Sunday at a New York Comic Con virtual panel celebrating the "Badass Women" of the three shows: The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and The Walking Dead: World Beyond. Actress and superfan Yvette Nicole Brown expertly moderated the discussion.

Starting with the mothership's grande dames like Carol, Maggie, Andrea, Michonne, and Sasha, there have always been three-dimensional women on AMC's powerhouse zombie franchise. "It's been really great to be able to write for a show and a franchise where we get to tell so many stories about strong female characters," said Walking Dead executive producer Angela Kang, who joined the show in Season 2 as a writer and was elevated to showrunner in Season 9. "And behind the scenes as well, we started this show with executive producer Gale Anne Hurd as one of our top producers on the show and she supports women and wants to bring them up."

Kang pointed out that her writers' room features a 50/50 split of women and men, and there are many other key behind-the-scene roles filled by women. "It's one of the things that is part of the value system of The Walking Dead universe," she noted. World Beyond, which has just begun the second part of its two-season run, has an all-female team of directors this year.

One of the most central figures on the main show has been executive producer Denise Huth, who originally worked for show creator Frank Darabont and helped him develop the series. "Absolutely everyone thought putting zombies on TV was a terrible idea, so it took us a while to get going," Huth recalled of the long journey from comics to screen.

Her role has been so pivotal that Lauren Cohan (who plays Maggie) singled her out when the panelists were asked about important women in their lives. "This woman has never missed a day on set," Cohan said of Huth. "She's never missed a day being there for us, representing the story, protecting us as actors, keeping us safe."

Cohan also talked about what it was like to rejoin the show last year, after exiting during Season 9. "I came back and I didn’t know myself until Angela and I had spoken quite what she had been up to, where she'd been, what she'd been through," she said of Maggie's missing time. "As an actor it's so nice to have a secret. When you go to play something you really want this idea of what you chose to tell someone and when you choose to tell them."

Paola Lázaro discussed reaching out to the producers when she was first hired to play Princess, a popular character from the comics who joined the flagship show in Season 10. In the comics, Princess is Mexican American, but since Lázaro is Puerto Rican, she asked about having the character's ethnicity match her own. "There's already a Mexican-American character who is fantastic, super-strong, which is Rosita, and I wanted to see if we could represent other Hispanic people," she recalled. "And they thought about it and they said yes and I just burst into tears that day because it was like a dream come true for me."

And while it was important to her that the character represents Puerto Ricans, Lázaro appreciates that it's not central to her storytline. Growing up, she felt like Puerto Rican characters on TV spent all their time just "constantly talking about being Puerto Rican," she said. "What I love about this is that I just get to play the character. And, yes, she happens to be Puerto Rican, but that's what I love about this universe, too, that I don't have to constantly say that [she is Puerto Rican], it's just is part of the character. Walking Dead from the get-go from the comic books has been super diverse and being a part of that is something I will always be super thankful for."

Julia Ormond, who plays Lieut. Col. Elizabeth Kubiek of the Civic Republic Military (CRM) on World Beyond, was fascinated by the tough choices so many of these characters have to make. "The Walking Dead universe presents you with this challenge: Are you gonna be a parent who looks to the safety of your kid or are you gonna represent that safety by trying to make the world safe," no matter the cost. Destroying the Campus Colony weighs heavy on Elizabeth's mind as Season 2 of the event series begins. "And Elizabeth, as somebody from the military, is in this nasty dilemma of, I don't know how to protect the future for my child without making some horrendous dehumanizing decisions."

Similarly, Jenna Elfman talked about some of the extreme measures her Fear character, June, has taken, including killing Pioneers leader Ginny in a fit of rage last season. "She goes to her darkest place when she can't help somebody," Elfman said. "And that's also been a map for me, is when June is in these zones when she can't find a way to help someone, she starts going into that place. And that's always been her life vest, to find a way to help someone. And as soon as she can get her footing on how she can help, she starts becoming herself again."

Aliyah Royale previewed the World Beyond transformation of her character. "Iris was supposed to be this sweet, innocent, naïve-to-a-fault character, just a complete contradiction to her sister Hope," she said. "She came off originally as very sheltered and in this dream state… [but] by the end of Season 1 — and damn sure going into Season 2 — she's got a bit of an agenda. Whereas in Season 1 she was pretty much living for everyone else and her only priority was to keep everyone on this journey with me safe, Season 2 Iris is about her business. And I love playing women who are about their business."

Chief among Iris' goals is to reunite with her adoptive sister. In the meantime, Hope must decide how to wield her leverage with the CRM. "I don't think she realizes how smart and powerful she actually is until Season 2," said Alexa Mansour, who plays the character. "When Season 2 comes and she realizes how smart she is and that she might have something to offer, I think she takes a step back and starts to realize, OK, maybe I can't be so defiant anymore. They're going to get tired of me, I can't keep pulling this charade for the rest of my life, maybe I am going to have to work with them."

The Walking Dead's eleventh and final season takes a break after this week's episode, and returns in February. World Beyond has just begun its final season, while Fear kicks off Season 7 on Sunday, Oct. 17. All three shows air on AMC and stream on AMC+.

Check out more of SYFY WIRE's New York Comic Con 2021 coverage here.