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.''