The world of Marwencol as glimpsed in Mark Hogancamp’s intriguing photographs is instantly addictive: In the Belgian town under siege by the Nazis, the female residents alternately seduce, protect, comfort, fight over and otherwise participate in an intense psychological drama with a tough but endearingly vulnerable US army captain whose plane was shot down. His face scarred, a cigarette dangling Bogielike from his lips, Captain Hoagie is the alter ego of Hogancamp, who began constructing his diminutive World War II European village on the grounds surrounding his trailer just outside Kingston while slowly recovering from a brutal assault that left him with a traumatic brain injury. Populated by a cast of meticulously costumed characters, now numbering in the hundreds, fabricated from Barbies and action figures, Marwencol channels Hogancamp’s rage, unrequited loves, desire, pain, playfulness, vengeance and other emotions into a compelling narrative that unfolds through a series of dramatic tableaux captured through the lens of his Pentax camera.
An eponymous documentary film about Hogancamp’s fantasy world by Jeffrey Malmberg was released in 2010, garnering accolades from the critics and a nationwide audience with the airing of the film on PBS as well as screenings in numerous arthouse theaters. Meanwhile, Hogancamp’s photos were gaining a following in the art world after they were shown in galleries in SoHo and Kingston. The artfulness with which Hogancamp recreated the milieu of the war-torn town, from the bleakness of soldiers patrolling in the snow on an overcast day to the warm intimacy of patrons sitting over their beers at the Catfight Club, invested his photographs with cinematic veracity.
Like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the richly imagined world of Marwencol has spawned its own fascinating set of facts and lore, entwined with the real-life story of its creator. Welcome to Marwencol, a just-published book co-written by Chris Shellen, Malmberg’s wife and partner on the film, is part biography, part art book and part graphic novel. The book begins with a detailed account of the attack on Hogancamp reconstructed from records in the Ulster County District Attorney’s office (Hogancamp himself has no memory of it), followed by an examination of his creative process, with details on the layout of his town, the characters, rules and mythology. The last third of the book is a comic-book-style, frame-by-frame retelling of Marwencol stories using Hogancamp’s photographs: a format that might be continued in subsequent graphic-novel books on Marwencol, Shellen said.
While working with her husband on the documentary, Shellen said that she was captivated by the boxes of photographs, journals, taped interviews and other material “too much to fit into an 82-minute film” and began talking to Hogancamp about doing a book. She started working on the book in 2011, communicating with the artist mostly remotely from her home in Los Angeles, sending sections that she’d written to him and receiving back his comments, corrections and edits by email. “I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to fantasy worlds,” Shellen said. “We kept calling the book Encyclopedia Marwencolia, because it’s a way to introduce people to the minutiae.”
The success of the film has been matched by the reception of the book, which was voted one of 2015’s 20 Best Art Books by Amazon and received accolades from book reviewers. It’s stocked in independent bookstores across the nation and in Great Britain. On Friday, December 4 at 7 p.m., Hogancamp will be answering questions and talking about his experiences at the Inquiring Mind bookstore in Saugerties in connection with Welcome to Marwencol.
Though Hogancamp was not available for an interview (because of his disability, such encounters are extremely taxing), Shellen reported that he told her that “He loves the book. It made him cry when he read the story of his life.” The Saugerties event will be the only one in the area connected with the publication of the book, she added. “Mark’s an extremely private person,” she said, noting that the artist continues to put his energies into his town and related creative pursuits.
Even as Hogancamp remains rooted in his fictional world, his fame continues to grow – and will likely leapfrog when a Hollywood film about his life will be released: Robert Zemeckis, whose movies include the phenomenally successful Forrest Gump, will direct and Steve Carell will play Hogancamp. Hogancamp meanwhile has created characters for his World War II town that closely resemble famous actors, such as Bruce Willis, Leonard DiCaprio and Matt Damon. While some people might find it an ego-booster to have their lives made into a Hollywood film, it’s likely that for Hogancamp the excitement will instead lie in the new narrative possibilities – say, a doll representing Carell playing Mark who is represented in Marwencol by Captain Hoagie: an infinity mirror of alter egos and colliding fictions.
Mark Hogancamp book-signing for Welcome to Marwencol, Friday, December 4, 7 p.m., free, Inquiring Mind Bookstore, 65 Partition Street, Saugerties; (845) 246-5775.