Marwencol is a small town in Belgium where German, American, British, and Russian soldiers of the Second World War fight it out and then sit down together for a drink at the bar; where the townspeople include a time-traveler from the future and her sister, a witch; and where evil-doers are transported to the Land of the Knight of Marwencol in another dimension for a brusque beheading. Its inhabitants are about a foot tall.
The village clusters beside the upstate New York trailer of artist Mark Hogancamp, its creator. Hogancamp spends his days constructing tiny, 1:6-scale buildings and posing the residents—military action figurines and Barbie dolls—in elaborate scenarios including set-piece battles, restaurant gatherings, church services, and romantic interludes. He then gets down at doll-level to photograph these tableaux. The resulting photo-narratives have an extraordinarily life-like power that has won Hogancamp critical acclaim. They are now the subject of a vivid coffeetable tome, Welcome to Marwencol, by Hogancamp and co-author Chris Shellen.
In the book, Shellen grippingly recounts Hogancamp’s life story, which is as dramatic as the fictional sagas of his dolls. In 2000, the then 38-year-old Hogancamp was divorced, working in a kitchen, and an alcoholic, his dreams of success as an artist drowned in a daily half-gallon of vodka. One night as he was leaving a bar he was attacked and beaten into unconsciousness by five men who may have targeted him because he mentioned his cross-dressing. He lay in a coma for nine days, and his brain injuries left a permanent legacy: the loss of his memory of long stretches of time and a tremor in his drawing hand.
Military miniatures had been a boyhood hobby of Hogancamp’s. “Little 1/35 scale soldiers and one GI Joe were all I had, and all I needed, to keep my imagination going,” Hogancamp says via email. “I also built models and made dioramas for them, little separate worlds.” He returned to that after the attack, quit drinking, and adjusted his artistic ambitions. “I started to film what I was building because I couldn’t draw what I was building.”
Hogancamp is a stickler for realism. His figurines sport grungy uniforms, mud-spattered vehicles, and grisly bullet-wounds inflicted with a heated pen-point and red nail polish. Perspective is cleverly arranged to make them look life-size and perfectly proportioned to their surroundings. Dolls run, sit, and slump with natural postures. Cigarettes dangle and beer steins slosh. “I love movies, and movies are so real to me because the directors make things look believable and weathered and old-looking,” Hogancamp explains. Getting the details right for a shoot can take hours, but Hogancamp has developed an intuitive feel for it, says Shellen. “He has a really remarkable eye for body language; he puts his hand on the dolls and they just melt into a naturalistic pose.”
But there’s also plenty of atmosphere and artistry in the book’s images. Hogancamp photographs his dolls in the glow of stained glass windows, the dimness of a pub, or in rich autumnal light filtering through a forest. The photo-narratives unfold like cinematic storyboards, conveying action and relationships with cunning camera angles and intimate mise-en-scene. Despite their being plastic, the reader feels a palpable emotional charge between his dolls.
All of this resonates personally with Hogancamp. Many of his characters are based on people he knows. (Shellen and her husband Jeff, who made an award-winning documentary about Marwencol, are represented by two filmmaker dolls.) A central feature of the Marwencol stories is the antagonism between the hero Hogie, an American fighter pilot (or tank commander, depending on the storyline), and five Nazi SS soldiers who repeatedly capture and brutalize him. The parallels with Hogancamp’s own attackers are clear. Marwencol also hosts powerful women—Hogie’s great love Anna, the jealous witch Deja Thoris—who gun down the SS and rescue Hogie. “Certain women allow me to feel safe, secure, and protected,” Hogancamp says. “These women are stoic, beautiful, and could crush a man into a fine powder. In my world, women win all the time.”
That deeply felt personal investment in his fictive world is what sets Hogancamp apart from other artists who work with miniatures, says Shellen. A doll is, by definition, a parody of a human being: “Most of the time when I see someone photographing miniatures they’re trying to be clever or to mimic something in real life,” Shellen says. But Hogancamp’s dolls feel real. “They have their own independent lives and relationships and a full blend of the spectrum of emotions that you get in real life.” That complexity and autonomy is on full display in Welcome to Marwencol, and makes the book an engrossing example of art imitating, and even transforming, life.Will Boisvert is a writer living in New York.