Polish Hill couple's 'Doc Red' draws its characters from real life

| Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 8:07 p.m.

“Doc Red” is a new graphic novel series of historical fiction, with a twist of real life.

“I never thought I would be a heroine of a comic,” Shadyside psychologist Dr. Ellen Redinbaugh says.

The real Doc Red posed for her namesake character in bright sunlight and a brisk wind, wearing vintage-like apparel found in Target and Goodwill, at Frank and Sarah Cunniff's home in Polish Hill.

Married for five years, and expecting their first child — Frank's the writer and Sarah's the artist, best known for mosaic tile art — the Cuniffs team up for story and pictures. Their two dogs also appear in the black-and-white, vintage-looking graphic novel.

“Doc Red” is set in the Wild West, circa 1862, at the beginning of the Civil War. The plot chronicles an outlaw female physician, a surgeon whose hands are only steadier when aiming a long rifle.

Frank writes the story lines first. Sarah sketches, then inks panels in the couple's upstairs studio, alongside mosaic supplies and 19th-century models. The stagecoach depicted in the book was, at one time, a liquor decanter from Homestead's Blue Dust, a craft-beer pub owned by Sarah's family.

That's where Ellen Redinbaugh helps out in the kitchen one night a week, usually washing dishes.

“If you work at the pub, you get a drink and then a meal,” Sarah says. “Ellen has been my mother's best friend for years.”

One night, several years ago, Frank started to write Redinbaugh's bar tabs as “Doc Red,” and had an image in his mind of Redinbaugh on a 1970s Western movie poster.

“I imagined Ellen behind a long-arm rifle, and it made me laugh,” he says. ”I could see a character with her dry wit and humor.”

That fall, when the couple's first comic series was released, there was an extra page. They created an ad for pioneer physician “Doc Red,” to give to their friend as a gift.

In the new series, Native American culture is explored through the relationship of two widows, Ellen Redinbaugh and her Native American daughter-in-law Hattie Redinbaugh. They travel together by stagecoach.

“There is an educational aspect to this series,” says David Yake, librarian at Carnegie Library — Allegheny, which holds adult book discussions for graphic novels. “It happens during an important time in our country's history and draws on the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, too.”

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), was the first American woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical school. The first book opens with Doc Red writing to Blackwell about setting arms and shoulders of men thrown from horses, as she wonders about Blackwell's work with indigent women and children, as well as the Civil War.

That's where historical fact and fiction took a surprising twist. Frank invented a backstory to place Doc Red's family in Cincinnati.

“It would have put her in close proximity with Elizabeth Blackwell, and she'd be in an early abolitionist hotbed, another historical theme I would like to explore,” he says. “It turned out that Ellen's family really was from Cincinnati. She thought I just knew that, and I just wrote that in.”

At the time, he thought the only Ohio connection was that Redinbaugh graduated from Ohio State University in 1996 with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

“My great-great-great grandfather acquired a 120-acre homestead north of Cincinnati on the Miami River during the early 1800s,” Redinbaugh says. “The Redinbaughs were pioneers and actually knew Johnny Appleseed.”

Two new issues of “Doc Red” will be released this fall. The Cunniffs plan to tie these books into a larger graphic novel series.

“The Wild West is almost romanticized to a point beyond interest for me, so I like bringing to life different aspects of the time period that are usually glossed over in movies,” Frank says. “I like those details. It makes it more engaging.”

“Doc Red,” is available in print at Copacetic Comic Company, New Dimension chain, and Phantom of the Attic.

Jane Miller is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

Copacetic connection

Andy Scott regarded The Copacetic Comics Company as a place to find “rarities and oddities” not available in a typical comic book store. One day, Scott showed his work to the owner, Bill Boichel.

“He said, ‘Hey, you should publish your own work.' He gave me the encouragement and confidence to do so,” Scott says.

He co-edits and publishes the Andromeda Quarterly, an anthology featuring work of other emerging comic creators, available at The Copacetic Comics Company.

Copacetic is defined in the dictionary as “everything's OK” or “things are fine.”

“I wanted to create a new business model for creating comics that presented comics as a medium for expression, and, by doing so, integrate it in a store that sold literature, poetry, music of all sorts and film, Boichel says.

He is called a “comic guru” by some.

“He has an innate sense that if he gets to know you a little, he will find the comic for you,” says Joe Wos, founder and director of Downtown's Toonseum. e_SNbS“You come into the store, and you will walk out with something in your hands that will start you in a whole new direction, either as a comic reader or an artist.”

Boichel has more than 30 years in comic retail since he started selling comics in Washington, D.C., in 1977. In the 1980s, he owned BEM, a retail comics store in Wilkinsburg. The Copacetic Comics Company was originally in Squirrel Hill, and became mostly an online business. Then, it became one of the businesses revitalizing Polish Hill on the third floor above the second floor's Jerry's Vinyl Records Shop and Lili's Café on the ground floor.

A former exhibitions director/manager for Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Boichel says comics are a relevant art form for anyone.

“Comics have a lot in common with film,” he says. “It is a relevant media. I want people to be able to come in, and see all these things on an equal footing, and move about.”

Classic comics are here — in limited quantities — and so is classic literature in comic form. For instance, in a book about Helen Keller, “comics show the difficult process of showing how Helen Keller could acquire language,” Boichel says. “That is the kind of thing comics is great at.”

But the focus of the shop is on lesser-known works by established authors and artists, as well as local and emerging local creators, including an entire table of “made in Pittsburgh” comics, books, films, CDs, prints and zines.

“It's been cool to watch how Bill fosters the graphic and comic artist community,” says Karen Lillis, who has a master's degree in library science, and created a web directory of Pittsburgh small presses. “There are nationally known comic artists who were fostered by him in the 1980s. He's doing it again at Copacetic.”

The Copacetic Comics Company is on the third floor of 3138 Dobson St., Polish Hill. Details: 412-251-5451 or www.copacetic.biz

— Jane Miller

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