Where's Waldo? -- We talk to Martin Handford, Waldo's creator

Best-selling children’s book author Martin Handford is thin. So is his star creation, Waldo. Martin Handford wears glasses. So does Waldo. Martin Handford is mild-mannered. So is Waldo. But Waldo is not — repeat, not — patterned after his maker. At least that’s what Handford says.

”He’s not knowingly based on me or anyone I know,” the author and artist insists. ”It’s a theory that has been put forward which rankles me a little bit, I’m afraid.” While the goofy, grinning Waldo is ”basically well-meaning and likable,” he is also, as the 34-year-old Handford notes soberly, ”slightly nerdish.”

Five years ago, Handford was just another struggling commercial artist in London; now he’s a publishing phenomenon. The first four Waldo volumes have sold an astounding 18.6 million books worldwide in the last four years (compared with 50,000 for a typical top-selling children’s title), with the third, The Great Waldo Search, riding high on The New York Times‘ best-seller list for a year. The books — whose readership ranges from preschoolers to grown-ups who love the sight gags — are printed in 22 countries and 16 languages, counting the forthcoming Basque, Hebrew, and Korean editions. Coming soon to American stores: Waldo T-shirts, shoes, games, and sleeping bags. And there’s talk of a Waldo film or TV series. (Take that, Bart Simpson. Revenge of the Nerd.)

Handford’s latest volume, Where’s Waldo? The Ultimate Fun Book!, is almost guaranteed to be a huge Christmas seller. Published this fall, it introduces two new characters: a female consort, Wilma, and her dog, Woof. As always in the Waldo books, the object is to spot the hero — who wears a red-and-white-striped sweater, blue jeans, and a cap with a red pom-pom — as he wades through crowds on an endless ”worldwide hike.” No one’s sure why, but children almost always home in on Waldo before adults do.

Perpetually wonderstruck, Waldo wanders from one mob scene to the next, a gee-whiz expression on his face. ”I didn’t want a character who was ultracool,” explains Handford, who this day turned up at his London publisher, Walker Books Ltd., dressed in a salmon-pink polo shirt, periwinkle-blue trousers, salmon-pink socks, and purple-and-black sneakers.

When Handford first doodled his leading man in 1985, he named him Wally, British slang for a somewhat spacey person. As the book was sold elsewhere, Wally acquired other monikers: He’s Govert in Holland, Ubaldo in Italy, Valle in Sweden — and Waldo in the U.S.; the name was chosen by the American publisher of the books, Little, Brown and Co.

Handford has been drawing crowds as long as he can remember: At age 4 or 5, he squeezed hundreds of stick figures into a single sketch. A solitary child of divorced parents, he had his London home to himself until his mum came home from work. ”After school, whereas most other children would go out and play games, my ideal enjoyment would be to stay in and do lots of pictures,” he recalls. He also spent hours arranging crowds of another sort-legions of toy soldiers. ”I still love them now,” he says. ”I love setting them up into lines and regiments and things.”

Handford’s imagination was fired further at the movies — ”typical Hollywood swashbuckler epics with a very heavy concentration on lots of extras and exciting battle scenes.” His favorites were The Alamo, El Cid, and anything that starred Errol Flynn. He also burrowed into historical comics and illustrated history books.

”I liked to combine the excitement I’d experienced from books or comics or films, and then I’d try to carry on the adventure by adding to it in a picture that I did,” Handford recalls. ”Ever since then, that’s what I’ve spent all my spare time doing.” He was five years out of art college, drawing his throngs for editorial and advertising clients, when Walker Books’ then-art director, David Bennett, asked him to bring in his work. Handford came up with Waldo as a way to unify the multitudes into a book. The result, Where’s Waldo?, was published in 1987.

Each of the pictures, drawn in the same scale used in the Waldo volumes and including 300 to 500 figures, takes about a month to complete on Handford’s unorthodox work schedule. At his home on the outskirts of London, Handford works through the night while listening to the Clash, the Bee Gees, or tapes of Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko from the ’50s TV series (”They really boost my morale”). He creates a quarter of a page at a time, first drawing the entire section in black outline and then filling in the colors, and working left to right. ”I usually let the activity just flow,” he says. ”I’ve got in my mind the sort of things that are going to be happening, and I’ll just put in the jokes where I think they’ll fit.” David Lloyd, a Walker Books editor, helps him polish the cheerful but minimal text.

Ever impervious, Waldo is often surrounded by mayhem but never touched by it. When he stumbles upon a battle scene, swords are brandished but no one bleeds, and guns are fired but the bullets whiz overhead. ”It doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the actual savagery that a lot of mankind has been capable of,” Handford says, ”but I was brought up on the Tom & Jerry cartoon school, where the violence was never real. We see Tom run into a wall and he gets his face crushed, or he gets an iron stamped on his face, but the next scene he’s up again and running. There is a criticism that if you trivialize violence, , that’s as bad as making it excessive, but I don’t feel the pictures would be the same without that conflict.”

The Ultimate Fun Book! was influenced by fan mail from the United States. Kids often send Handford photos of themselves dressed as Waldo or their own drawings of the antihero, so he devised ”more of a multimedia affair,” with pages to color in, stickers, a board game, and ”cardboard figures that you can press out and make a 3-D circus. That’s the sort of thing I used to love as a kid.”

Handford has no children of his own to use as sounding boards — the new book is dedicated to his girlfriend of the last nine years — but he says he still thinks like a kid anyway: ”I don’t need to refer to any other kids. I’ve got more than enough ideas of my own.” In fact, Handford’s life has hardly changed at all since he and Waldo found fame. ”Some journalists have tried to paint me as this owl, this nocturnal creature that doesn’t like coming out in the daylight,” he says. ”It’s true, I don’t normally rise until after midday, but that’s not uncommon amongst commercial artists. It worried me that I was being described as reclusive, because I’m not; I’ve got very good friends.”

Nor does he plan to upgrade his lifestyle anytime soon. ”I’m pretty easily pleased, actually, which worries me sometimes.” He doesn’t enjoy travel, has no desire for a bigger house, and spends most of his money on art supplies, illustrated books, old comics, and still more toy soldiers.

But there is one thing he longs for: ”My only regret in life is I would love to have been in a pop group. Seriously.” In fact, he was in a punk band at art college, but he’s too mortified to mention the name. ”We were quite obnoxious,” he says, blushing. ”The thing was, every time we played, my role in the group diminished. The first concert, I was the lead singer. The second, I played bass. The third concert, we got a female lead singer in, and I was the backup singer to her. And at our last concert, I was the dancer — I wasn’t allowed to do anything musically.”

He may not be Barry Gibb, but surely the author’s parents are proud? ”They’re pleased for me, obviously,” he says, ”but it’s had no effect at all, really. My mother’s still waiting for me to get a proper job.”