It's a Waldo-Ful World

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

MARTIN HANDFORD HAS SPENT MUCH of his 35 years getting lost in crowds, often of his own making. As a kid he would draw entire armies of soldiers—emphasis on the word entire. "If there were 4,000 soldiers in a battle," his mother, Ruth Winter, recalls, "he would draw 4,000." Handford was fascinated by picture books with colorful crowd scenes, and he adored movies with casts of thousands. "I'm the type to spot a wristwatch on the fourth legionnaire three rows back in a Roman battle scene," Handford observes. "When I have an interest in something, it can be obsessive."

That will not come as a revelation to the worldwide legion of fans who have bought 13 million of Hand-ford's Where's Waldo? children's picture books. In each of four volumes, starting with the now legendary Where's Waldo? in 1987, Handford hides his bespectacled, intrepid hero, Waldo, somewhere in the midst of a series of meticulously drawn, imaginative crowd scenes from the past or the future. The challenge for kids—and for their parents too, ii truth be told-is to find Waldo (Wally in England, Charlie in France, Aref in Egypt) somewhere in Hand-ford's delightful throngs of turbaned tigers and surfing pirates.

So successful is the series that nowadays it's almost impossible to avoid Waldo. A Saturday-morning animated children's TV show, Where's Waldo?, began airing on CBS in September, and a large-format book, Where's Waldo? The Magnificent Poster Book, is due Nov. 1. Then there's the proliferation of Waldo-ware—200-odd products, from talking dolls to lunch boxes—that's making the fearless master of concealment more visible with each passing day.

"I stand aghast at what is happening," says Waldo's soft-spoken and self-effacing creator. Handford is a man of nocturnal habits who usually rises at 1 P.M. and soon thereafter reports to a book-lined ground-floor room in his modest St. Albans, Hertfordshire, home. There he works straight through until 5 A.M., with his only company the background drone of Bee Gees tapes or TV shows including Sergeant Bilko reruns and Donahue. On winter workdays, he says, "it is not unusual for me never to see light coming into the house."

Handford's crowded sketchbooks contrast sharply with his solitary boyhood. An only child whose parents split up shortly after his birth, he grew up with his mother, a nurse, in a small apartment in the Hampstead section of London. "My interests have always been indoor pursuits," he says, "TV, books, comics, toy soldiers."

And drawing. "He would draw on a bus or a train, anytime," remembers Ruth. "And he would laugh at things other people wouldn't think were very funny." Handford recalls his mother being terrified when he fell into an anteater pit at Whipsnade Zoo. He, on the other hand, thought it was hilarious.

Unable to afford college, he took a job selling insurance but after three years won a government grant to study at the Maidstone College of Art near London. "I enjoyed it tremendously. It was life to the full, says Handford, who maintains he was "a hell-raiser" in those days. That claim is based at least in part on a short-lived gig with a punk-rock group—first as lead singer, later as a nonsinging dancer. In 1980 Handford met his longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth, 29, an illustrator. "We share the same sense of humor," he says.

After graduation in 1980, Handford worked as a free-lance magazine illustrator while filling his portfolio with proto-Waldo crowd scenes. In 1985 he showed his work to David Bennett, an art director at London's Walker Books. Together they worked out a book idea centering on a character who could unify the crowd scenes and "be a challenge for the reader to find," says Handford. They chose the name Wally, he says, because it was "slightly idiotic in a charming way."

Waldo has since consumed Han-ford's life. Each double-page drawing takes a month to finish; each book, a year. Unlike his stalwart wanderer, Handford rarely takes a holiday or travels. "I'm happier working," he says. "In many ways I feel I haven't grown up. I still love the things I loved as a child."

Including Sergeant Bilko. "When I like something, I go at it hammer and tongs," says Handford, who is well on his way to completing his collection of all 138 episodes of the program.

MARJOKIE ROSEN
JONATHAN COOPER and LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London

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