Acclaimed film director, actor, playwright and composer, Melvin Van Peebles, director of the groundbreaking 1971 black film Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, has worn many creative hats in his extraordinary career. Now, Van Peebles is teaming up with Akashic Books to add a new hat to his wardrobe. In September the Brooklyn indie will publish, Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha, a graphic novel created by Van Peebles and the oddly-named artist Caktus Tree…? that was the basis for a new film with the same title that Van Peebles will screen this summer.
The book, a combination of prose, comics and photographs, will be a full-color, 75 page work. It’s a comical and picaresque story of a young black man who joins the Merchant Marine and goes off to see the world. After more than few hair-raising adventures—in a prescient note, the heroes’ ship is captured by pirates—he returns to his native Chicago to find the girl he loves but had overlooked. “He discovers during his travels that he loved someone he left behind in his rush to see the world,” said Van Peebles. “It’s a classic story but it’s the trappings, the adventures along the way that make the story.” Van Peebles, who was in the Merchant Marine himself, says the story is not autobiographical but admitted that “I’ve lived all his adventures. Over time you accumulate a lot of life-material.”
Long considered the founder of modern African American indie filmmaking, Van Peebles told PWCW that the graphic novel format was the perfect form for a film director to work in. “It was a no-lose situation,” said Van Peebles, “the graphic novel is a great form that can be used to marry the book format with the movie.” Van Peebles began writing the story about 4 years ago before deciding it would be a graphic work. A visual artist as well, Van Peebles also art-directed the book and did the initial layouts (all before directing the film and composing its soundtrack). He then went out and found the unusually named Caktus Tree …? Van Peebles is known for discovering talent—the legendary music group Earth, Wind and Fire performed the soundtrack of Sweetback before they became famous—and he described the artist as “very competent, with a visual flair. I wanted someone that would be a good marriage.”
Van Peebles screened the film last year and will hold new screenings in New York, Chicago and L.A. in August. He’s distributing the movies to festivals himself while he waits for a distributor to pick it up, “I’m just waiting for the right price,” he told PW.
An iconoclastic figure in American pop culture, Van Peebles is a perfect fit for publisher Johnny Temple’s Akashic Books, who describes its publishing mission as “the reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” Indeed Temple has specialized in publishing a range of edgy titles—from punk rock nonfiction to a line-up of African American and Caribbean authors—for a young and hip audience of urban readers. “Melvin brings great deal of personality to everything he does,” said Temple, “including our contract negotiations. Our meetings were filled with laughter and profanity.” The book was also signed for no advance, Van Peebles said, noting that “it’s about other things than money.”
Nevertheless, Van Peebles is something of a legend. So why would he choose a small publisher based in Brooklyn to release this work? “I like the books they do,” he said, “and they left me alone.” And to Van Peebles, whose career has been defined by his individuality and independence, that means a lot. “Big publishers want you to change this and change that. I’d rather go to a little publisher—who needs the tsuris,” he said laughing. “Besides they do such quality work, why not help them get on the map?”