Known for works like his films "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," and "Watermelon Man," and his musical "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death," Melvin Van Peebles is an artist who's unafraid to cross boundaries, disciplines, and traditions in his work. His forthcoming project is no exception. The seventy-six-year-old is gearing up for the release of a graphic novel called "Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha" (illustrated by Caktuz Tree).
The story is an amusing coming-of-age tale about a young man who suffers from a bad case of wanderlust that's partly prompted by travel books, the blues, and the death of his father. The itchyfooted fourteen-year-old, depicted by Van Peebles, leaves his home with a stash from his "Saturday matinee triple-feature-show-fare-money" and along the way, as he grows into adulthood, he encounters mobsters, love, and Harlem. Replete with song lyrics, poetic verses, and catchy wordplay, in the end, the book carries a simple lesson: "F.Y.I….Making your own bed ain't a guarantee it's gonna be comfortable."
"Confessions" drops September 1, but Akashic, the publisher behind the project, is printing a limited run of 100 hardcover copies that will feature an original drawing by Van Peebles. Each copy will also be signed and numbered.
The novel also inspired a movie of the same name that stars Van Peebles, who, beard and all, plays the character as a youngster and grown man. Check for film screenings around the country in late August.
In an entertaining chat with Books on the Root, Van Peebles talked (he also sang some blues) about innovation, perseverance and the future of graphic novels.
Books on the Root: How did this project come about?
Melvin Van Peebles: It came about the old-fashion way, by living it. Years ago, when I was a kid, I worked with the merchant marine. I ran into a number of characters aboard the ship and I carried that memory all through these years. It was almost second nature to do a story about the guys on the ship. I was thinking of it as a novel, but when a new form of novel came out, the graphic novel, I said, "Wow, this is interesting." I began life as a painter, so this was right up my alley. One thing led to another and then someone said, "You know, this would be a great movie." I would love to say that I studied the situation and I decided to go in this direction, but really the idea fell on my head.
BOTR: The graphic novel format worked well with the story. It seemed like a freer medium.
MVP: I wanted to do things a little differently. So I added a flip to the graphic novel. I brought in stills from the film, shots that you don't get to see. I predict this will be the next step in the evolution of the graphic novel, where you'll have photos, illustrations and stills from a movie. If you look at a graphic novel for something like Batman, you get drawings, but you never see photos or stills from the film. Fortunately, because I do all these various things, they fit together in my head. I don't have to think twice about it; I just do it.
BOTR: Is that how you explain your ability to be an innovative artist, but just doing it?
MVP: I guess innovative is the word. I just sense it.
BOTR: How would you describe the film?
MVP: The film is me as usual. It got all these big time accolades and I think it's going to do very well. But with all my stuff, people ask, "What the hell is that?" They say, "Oh you're Broadway shows are great," but they forget that before the shows opened, people said that they would never work. When "Sweetback" came out, only two theaters would show it. With ["Confessions"], I got no partners. No one would come in with me. What else is new? I've been down that road before.
BOTR: Tell us about this "doofus" character.
MVP: Doofus says it all. But he's an ex-doofus. He learned and he wrote down what he learned.
BOTR: Are you the ex-doofus?
MVP: I'm a little too modest to have an "ex" in front of the doofus. That's a very kind thought though.
BOTR: You've dabbled in many different artistic mediums—
MVP: Whoa, slow your roll. I didn't dabble in shit. I make my living this way!
BOTR: You're right, wrong word choice. You've worked with so many different artistic mediums over you're extensive career. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists, filmmakers, or visual artists trying to break through?
MVP: It's not how many times you get knocked down that counts, it's how many times you get up.
is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at feliciapride.com.