In his own tiny universe

Mark Hogancamp died 11 years ago April 8, when five men kicked his head in outside a Kingston, New York, bar in the early morning hours. He was reborn a few months later, when he awoke from a nine-day coma, his memory wiped nearly clean of the details of his life – his early marriage, girlfriends, family, Navy service, thundering alcoholism, homelessness, jail time – and he had to relearn how to eat, walk and think at age 38. Feeling shunned by the outside world, he created his own world, a tiny society called Marwencol.

Made from scraps of plywood and peopled with a tribe of Barbies and World War II action figures, Marwencol grew along the side of his trailer home near Kingston, New York. (Hogancamp named his new world after himself and Wendy and Colleen, two women he had crushes on.) Narratives surrounding a downed U.S. fighter pilot rescued by Marwencol’s all-female population began unfurling against a backdrop that was nominally a World War II setting, in Belgium. The themes, however, were Hogancamp’s own: the brutality of men, the safe haven of a town of women, the twin demons of rage and fear. Hogancamp captured his stories with thousands of photographs, shooting on an old Pentax with a broken light meter. The noirish images, complete with blood flecks in the snow, are riveting and emotional.

How these photographs made their way into an art magazine, and then a Manhattan gallery show – “Mr. Hogancamp has an uncanny feel for body language, psychology and stage direction,” Jerry Saltz wrote in The Village Voice – and how Hogancamp negotiated the blessings and pitfalls of what he calls his second life, was the subject of “Marwencol,” a documentary that made its debut at the South by Southwest film festival last spring and roared through the festival circuit in the fall, accruing an armful of awards.

There were accolades for the filmmaker, Jeff Malmberg, who captured his subject with generosity and warmth, and for Hogancamp, who was embraced for his artwork, his openhearted world view and his stunning collection of women’s footwear. (When Hogancamp returned home after the beating, he discovered a closet full of women’s pumps and boots. “Do I have a girlfriend?” he asked a friend. “They’re yours,” the friend replied. “You collect them and you wear them.” Hogancamp then learned that the men who beat him did so after he told them he was a cross-dresser.)

For this reclusive man, still tender from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain damage (and also, he imagines, years of hard drinking, though he can’t remember the craving for alcohol), the last year has been painful in all sorts of new ways, as he has shared Marwencol, and himself, with an ever-widening sphere of people.

With his thick, wavy hair and a Pall Mall 100 clamped tight in an impish smile, Hogancamp resembled a character out of “The Great Escape,” full of can-do spirit.

The place looked magical: Fighter planes hung from the ceiling; doll parts and tiny accessories – wire-rim glasses the size of a wedding ring – were jumbled on counters and tables. If each home is a refuge, this one is as fortified as a medieval castle. Tucked into every corner were women – dolls one-sixth the size of real women, that is. Some were Barbies, like Deja, the Witch of Marwencol, who wears her metallic green hair in a Louise Brooks bob. Others, like Anna, who is blond and Germanic-looking, were World War II action figures.

“I’m building an army of women,” Hogancamp said. “Women rule the world. We’re just here to keep them company.”

He is represented here as well: His alter ego is a U.S. fighter pilot doll named Captain Hogie, a Nicolas Cage type with smouldering eyes and a deep scar running across his face.

Since the movie’s debut, Malmberg has set up a website for Marwencol, where he posts new scenes that Hogancamp photographs.

There is a long list of buyers eager to purchase Hogancamp’s artwork, but for now they will have to wait until Malmberg and others set up a disability trust for him.

“We can’t jeopardize his disabled status,” Malmberg said. “And what if the appetite for his work fades?”

Hogancamp lives from disability check to disability check. To save money, he eats one meal a day (the other night, it was chicken and rice with jalapeno peppers and melted Velveeta). He buys groceries every Tuesday, when a neighbour gives him a lift to the Cumberland Farms store 8 kilometres away.

In November, the deli where he used to shop went out of business. It was just 3.2 kilometres away, and he could walk there by himself, keeping steady by focusing his eyes on the lines at the side on the road, and staying calm by dragging behind him an Army jeep the size of a handbag filled with Deja and the other girls, all armed to the teeth to keep him safe. The trip was also helpful in that it wore down the factory seams on the jeep’s rubber tires (Hogancamp is a stickler for detail).

Six years ago, these trips drew the attention of David Nagle, a local photographer. He drove by Hogancamp and his tiny convoy a number of times before stopping to ask Hogancamp what it was all about. Within a few days, Nagle received a stack of Marwencol photographs in the mail. Stunned by the narrative and by Hogancamp’s skill as a photographer, he sent them to the editor of Esopus, an art journal, where they were published, along with Hogancamp’s story, in the fall of 2005.

As it happens, Malmberg, the filmmaker, subscribes to Esopus. Such are the providential events of Hogancamp’s “second life.” That the beating erased so much of him it took away his taste for alcohol is another. Not that there isn’t a record of that part of his life.

In spiral notebooks and bound journals, on sheaves of paper stuffed into portfolios, filling sketchpad upon sketchpad, are 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.