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‘Why I Created My Own World’: Mark Hogancamp on ‘Marwencol,’ The Fantasy Town Where He’s a Hero

Last week I listened to an episode of the “Snap Judgment” podcast profiling Mark Hogancamp, the artist behind “Marwencol,” an imaginary World War II-era town captured in photographs—an ever-changing diorama, with scenes starring Barbie dolls and army figures posed in miniature tanks, barracks and bars. One of the army figures is Hogancamp’s alter ego, a war hero.

The episode touched on some of the aspects of Hogancamp’s life covered in Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary by the same name: He created and began photographing his fantasy European town after sustaining severe traumatic brain injury in 2000. He’d been beaten to within an inch of his life outside a bar in Kingston, New York, where I live, because he talked about being a cross-dresser. The damage to his brain was so severe that when Hogancamp returned home and saw the hundreds of women’s shoes in his closet, he asked his roommate, “Do I have a girlfriend?”

Occasionally you can spot Hogancamp walking around Kingston, usually in jeans and pumps. But the sightings have become fewer and farther between since his story, and his photographs, began attracting major—much deserved—attention. Welcome to Marwencol, a book featuring Hogancamp’s story and 600 of his photographs, is due out Tuesday (11/3) And soon, he’ll be portrayed by Steve Carell in the Hollywood version of his story.

I know Hogancamp’s story well, but every time I hear it, I’m struck by his resilience, and also by how cruel and violent people can be, especially toward those who dare to step outside of gender norms. After listening to the podcast in the car, I returned home to learn that the same thing had just happened in Troy, to an acquaintance of mine, Jason Martin, a musician and performer who dares to cross gender lines (and species lines) in his dress.

If only Hogancamp’s story weren’t still so painfully relevant.

Below, a quote from Penelope Green’s New York Times profile of Hogancamp, which ran in 2011—before the book and movie deals, when he was still surviving on one meal a day:

In spiral notebooks and bound journals, on sheaves of paper stuffed into portfolios, filling sketchpad upon sketchpad, are Mr. Hogancamp’s drawings and diary entries, dating back to 1984, the year he entered Navy boot camp. They detail, in vivid prose and gorgeous superhero-style sketches, his battle with alcohol, his spells of homelessness and his tours in rehab, along with the outfits of the women at the lighting company where he once worked designing retail showrooms.

The last sketch he made is of Marilyn Monroe. It’s half-finished, but he can’t complete it. The beating erased his ability to draw.

“I’ve gotten over the anger,” he said. “Wanting to go out and kill all men just because they took from me what I loved the most. That’s why I created my own world where my people love me for who I am. I treat them with respect; I cover them up so that when I set them up they perform easily for me. They are my little actors and actresses.”

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