The Shelf of Skulls stood out to me among the numerous 50s horror comics because it had a strong female protagonist, Olane. The 8-page story begins with a woman, Celia, conspiring to end her unhappy relationship by murdering her partner, Mark Trent. After returning home to Trent, she waits for her partner, Don, to arrive at the house and kill Trent. While she waits, Trent, an eccentric scientist who collects skulls, tells her about a trip he took to the Banishing Islands. There, he encountered the beautiful and feared ruler of these islands, Olane.
Olane is not a damsel in distress or simply a weak-willed love interest as many women in 50s media were portrayed. She’s proud and ferocious, feared and respected by the majority of her people. In battle, she handles herself well, using a spear as easily as any of her male companions.
Olane does fall in love with Trent, and has a short-lived weak spot for him. However, she does not believe the traveller to be honest, and doesn’t show him complete trust. Later, when he’s captured to trick Olane into launching a rescuing attempt, she liberates him with stealthy ease. After discovering his traitorous secret, she banishes Trent from her lands without a second thought. Olane didn’t allow her attraction toward Trent cloud her better judgment. She didn’t even risk her people’s lives when rescuing him, coming by herself, instead.
Kayito’s guard believes that because she is a woman, Olane is weak and foolish. Shortly afterward, the underestimation of Olane leads to his demise. I like that the story points out that Olane is not foolish or stupid: native tribespeople and women both are often portrayed ineffectually. They are typically written in side roles and are less important, intelligent, and useful than the white, male main character. But in this story, Olane is just as, if not more, articulate, skilled, and cunning as Trent.
She demonstrates novel fortitude, intelligence, and leadership for a woman. Strong female characters were few and far between in the fifties. Olane had a positive role in the story, displaying locality to her people unmatched by any of the other, backstabbing characters in the story.
“The Shelf of Skulls” appeared in Voodoo #1, 1952. Art by the extraordinary Matt Baker. Fantastically collected in the The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics series The Complete Voodoo Volume 1 by Yoe Books and IDW.