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"Welcome to Marwen" Out in Theaters Now

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Mark Hogancamp staging figures for his alternative world Marwencol. Jeff Malmberg's 2010 documentary about Hogancamp, Marwencol, screens at Upstate Films in Woodstock on March 18.
  • Mark Hogancamp staging figures for his alternative world Marwencol. Jeff Malmberg's 2010 documentary about Hogancamp, Marwencol, screens at Upstate Films in Woodstock on March 18.

On December 20, Welcome to Marwen dropped in theaters. Starring Steve Carrell, this new film from Universal Studios blends live-action and animation to tell the story of the brutal attack on Ulster County resident Mark Hogancamp and the moving journey of self-guided art therapy that ensued.

A Different Model

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was brutally jumped by five men outside a bar in a waterfront neighborhood of Kingston, leaving him in a coma for nine days. Hogancamp was left with brain injuries and severe PTSD, and after reawakening, he had to relearn basic skills like walking.

Previously, an alcoholic—by his own admission—when Hogancamp emerged from his coma, he lost all interest in alcohol. To improve his dexterity, Hogancamp began collecting 1:6 scale World War II action figures and Barbie dolls.

Over time, these diminutive characters took on a dynamic life of their own. One of them, which he calls Hogie, became his alter ego; others were modeled after his friends, neighbors, and even hisattackers. Hogancamp built a Belgian town to scale as a set for these figures and called it Marwencol. "I needed Marwencol to heal myself," Hogancamp explains. He began staging scenes with his characters and photographing them, modifying the "body language" of his small actors like an art director.

Hogancamp's fantasy world is not static; he creates an evolving storyline. At one point his avatar is captured by five SS officers, tortured, nearly murdered—until three of his female friends (all Barbie dolls) burst in brandishing weapons, shoot the German soldiers, and liberate him. Hogancamp's characters play out stories of sacrifice and heroism that represent "Good War" nostalgia and are also parables of ethical action. The five SS soldiers personify the five men who jumped the artist outside the bar in Kingston.

Steve Carell plays Mark Hogancamp i "Welcome to Marwen." - ED ARAQUEL/UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures
  • Steve Carell plays Mark Hogancamp i "Welcome to Marwen."


I asked Hogancamp about the powerful women in his fantasies. "I've always dreamed of having an all-female security team around my doll Scrunchie and I," he answered, referring to the Deja Thoris doll that Hogie wed in 2009. "If we ever get invited to something big in the future, our security ladies will encircle Scrunchie and I and the little folks, and protect us from evil. It's just a dream."

When you play with toy soldiers as a child, you kill a man and he soon hops back to life again, but Hogancamp luridly murders his characters—perhaps influenced by horror movies. He will stave in an SS guard's head, cover it with copious amounts of fake blood, then photograph the carnage.

But the dolls are not purely an art form. Three of his "girlfriends" sleep in a little bed next to him at night. Just before he turns out the light, he whispers, "I love you." But is he speaking to them or for them? It's not clear. In any case, this phrase reveals a subtext of Hogancamp's art—a love that is erotic, selfless, drunken, military, all mixed together. I was reminded of the movie Crumb, where R. Crumb admits that he masturbates to the women he draws.

The Road to Discovery

Hogancamp walks the local roads near Kingston, pulling his figures behind him in a diminutive jeep, to wear down the wheels of the vehicle so it appears more authentic in photographs. He resembles a boy in the 1940s with a red wagon.

Hogancamp was pulling his jeep like this along 213,  when local photographer David Naugle spied him and pulled over to talk to him. Later, the shy artist showed Naugle his piles of photographs. Recognizing the visionary power of this art, Naugle contacted Esopus magazine, which led to a show for Hogancamp at the prestigious White Columns gallery in the West Village, a book, and a documentary called Marwencol, directed by Jeff Malmberg. The film, which debuted in 2010, won more than two dozen awards.

Hogancamp's story is once again in public eye, with the pre-Christmas release of the Universal Studios movie Welcome to Marwen, featuring Steve Carrell. 

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