Waldo, that geeky guy with the red-and-white-striped sweater, is more elusive than ever before, hiding among crazy clowns or wild toys in the crowded pages of his newest picture book. But 10 years after Waldo first challenged children to find him, his creator, Martin Handford, has become a little more visible.
Handford still carefully guards his privacy and doesn't want to be photographed. And the humble artist still spends countless hours at a drawing table in his home studio in the suburbs of London penning and painting tiny characters until they become huge crowds.
But the 41-year-old Handford, whose colorful "Where's Waldo?" books have sold more than 30 million copies, married an artist named Elizabeth five years ago and has a 3-year-old son and baby daughter. They've turned his life upside down and he now lives like more regular folks--using nighttime for sleeping and daytime for work. He'll even brag about his family a bit, if asked.
"At this moment, I'm not maniacally working as much as I used to because I have my family to attend to," explained Handford recently during a telephone interview with 15 journalists to promote Waldo's 10th anniversary and the release of his 12th book, "Where's Waldo? The Wonder Book."
Handford may have trimmed his work schedule, but he's no less obsessive. The crowds in each double spread of "Where's Waldo? The Wonder Book" are more crowded, numbering as many as 3,000 to 4,000 figures, according to Handford. The scenes are packed with more mayhem--a crazy cake factory, a riotous fun fair of fruits, a booming band competition. The visual challenge in this world of dreams and fantasies is greater than ever.
"I'm becoming much more fussy about how I draw the figures and how I make the whole picture," said Handford, who sometimes spends two months on one spread. " 'The Wonder Book,' I feel, is the most crowded and manic one."
As much as Handford doesn't want to be a star, he's thrilled that Waldo is.
"I can't tell you how pleased I am that he's taken on a life of his own," said Handford, showing humility at the suggestion that Waldo might become as classic a character as, let's say, Winnie the Pooh.
Searching for the happy-go-lucky world traveler has become a global passion. Waldo fans live in more than 20 countries and speak 19 different languages.
You can find Waldo on cans of Waldo-O's pasta and tomato sauce and on boxes of Life cereal. Waldo's likeness has appeared on everything from lunch boxes to Halloween costumes. He is the star of a syndicated comic strip and talks to fans on a new Web site--http://www.findwaldo.com.
His four earlier 12-scene "search and find" books have been re-released, with Waldo in a new location in each picture.
So much success from a guy who is really just doing what he's been doing since he was a boy--drawing, particularly large battle scenes like those in his favorite book, "The Golden History of the World," illustrated by Cornelius DeWitt, or in the action-packed movies with casts of thousands, such as "The Alamo." Back then, Handford was no less meticulous and passionate as he tried to recapture the excitement.
Handford left art college after three years and worked as a freelance illustrator drawing crowd scenes for magazines, newspapers and advertising agencies. He talked to a book publisher about creating a book filled with crowd scenes. It was decided that there should be a character that gets lost in each scene, giving people a reason to look more closely.
Waldo, actually the well-meaning but goofy Wally in his original incarnation, was born.
Handford said the red-and-white-striped sweater was meant as a kind of uniform, something eye-catching. The round glasses and stocking hat topped by a pom-pom defined Waldo's personality. Handford said he saw Waldo as a "train spotter," a word used in England in the early 1980s to describe someone who is "slightly nerdish" and "slightly idiotic."
"What I'm trying to say is I gave him that look, because, when I originally thought of the character who was lost in all these scenes, I just imagined that the reason why he was lost was because he was slightly idiotic and didn't know where he was going."
"Where's Waldo?," the first book, placed Waldo on a "worldwide hike" exploring traditional spots like the beach, the railway station and a sports stadium.
In subsequent books, Waldo journeys through action-packed fantasy lands of gobbling gluttons, battling monks and unfriendly giants, and he travels back and forth through time to observe the cavemen, the ancient Egyptians and aliens. "Where's Waldo? In Hollywood" takes Waldo watchers on a tour of Tinseltown, through the sets of wild westerns and musicals.
Madness and mayhem reign, but the happy-go-lucky Waldo wanders through, unaffected, in picture after picture. He loses things like his camera and walking stick, but never his emotional calm. He knows readers will find them. And he gets emotional support from his friends--characters like Wenda, Wizard and a dog named Woof.
"Part of his appeal is, hopefully, that he's an alternative to lots of other characters that are popular with children," said Handford. "I think he's less violent and less macho, and suitably different."
A lot has been made of a similarity between Waldo and Handford, but he claims it's coincidence.
Still, Handford is reported to share Waldo's goofy grin and long chin. His glasses are prominent and necessary. Waldo likes reading and observing; so does Handford. Both are positive and polite.
But Waldo likes crowded places; Handford likes home. Waldo loves to travel; Handford rarely goes far. Handford prefers to visit the world through books, television and film.
But like Handford, Waldo has changed over the years.
"From the personality point of view, I see him as completely different now," explained Handford. "As far as I'm concerned, he's not idiotic. He is a cool guy. He knows where he's going. He's very open-minded. He's kind. From a visual point of view, his face has actually changed to make him look less nerdy."
Handford says Waldo continues to be the afterthought he was at his inception, placed into scenes after they are nearly complete. As such, there is no formula to finding Waldo. He goes where he fits. Sometimes that means there is no more than a grinning face.
Which is more than you're likely to ever see of Martin Handford.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Waldo Fact File
* Country of birth: Waldoland
* Age: Unknown
Wally (United Kingdom, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Greece, South Korea)
* Height: Tallish
* Weight: Lightish
* Character: Happy-go-lucky
* Favorite words: "Wow!" "Fantastic!" "Amazing!"
* Usual expression: happy smile
* Natural habitat: crowded places
* Best friends: Wenda and Woof
* Hobbies: reading, traveling, observing
* Ambition: to go to wilder and wackier places.