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.