Where's Waldo? And Who's Wally?

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Since I moved to London, I've gotten used to things being just a bit different: Sure, there's the whole accent thing and the driving on the other side of the road and the insertion of u's where they hadn't been before, but I mean the much more subtle differences "“ like Waldo.

With his trademark red-and-white striped shirt, his knit cap topped with a pom-pom, glasses and walking stick, Waldo has wended his way through virtually every country on every continent, through time and space and imagination, the sets of Hollywood movies and the pages of beloved books.

And Where's Waldo? you ask? Everywhere. His books have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and have been translated into over 25 languages, and as a character, Waldo has become an icon, appearing on TV shows such as The Simpsons, Friends and Frasier. Waldo even made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone.

But here in the UK, Waldo is Wally.

And, shockingly enough, Waldo was actually Wally first "“ and he's British. Wally was the brainchild of Martin Handford, an illustrator born in the Greater London neighborhood of Hampstead. Handford said that growing up, his earliest influences were large-scale cinema epics, the kinds of movies with large crowd scenes, which he would then try to recreate with pen and paper.

wheres_wallyAlready a known illustrator who specialized in crowd scenes, Handford was asked to put together a book of his work "“ and voila! Wally was born, a visual tie-in that kept continuity from scene to scene.

Eventually, after publishers bought the book, Wally evolved into the bespectacled bumbling traveler we now know: In a typical book, Wally/Waldo carries his trademark walking stick, in addition to 11 other items that are designed to help him on his travels: kettle, mallet, cup, backpack, sleeping bag, binoculars, camera, snorkel, belt, bag and a shovel. Waldo, however, isn't particularly good at keeping track of his items and so, on each page, he loses one, requiring the reader to help him find it. To find him and his lost item, readers are tasked with visually sorting through vast scenes, often rife with visual puns and humor (sometimes a bit risqué humor at that).

The book series launched in 1987 in the UK, with Wally as its titular character; later that same year, the series was launched in the US, where Wally was introduced as Waldo. The series took off, becoming a sensation within only a few years and eventually morphing into a TV series in both the US and the UK, a comic strip, several video games (including one due out this September from Ubisoft), and even a few magazines (in the UK and Australia, Wally went on weekly adventures to new countries, which he reported on his children's geographical and cultural magazine, Wally's World).

By 1997, when the publishers of the books came out with Where's Waldo? The Wonder Book, the Waldo world also had several new characters to find: Woof, Waldo/Wally's faithful canine companion; Wenda, Waldo's girlfriend and the "one who takes pictures," according to the introduction to The Wonder Book; Wizard Whitebeard, whose magic allows the apparently jobless Waldo to travel as much as he does; and Odlaw, whose mean disposition, black-and-yellow striped clothing and slick mustache make him the villain in the Waldo-verse.

The intrepid traveler had even by then sparked some controversy "“ Waldo was spotted on the American Library Association's list of 100 most frequently challenged books, after wandering through a beach scene containing a nearly topless sunbather.

But not only has this international man of mystery gotten lost in scenes across the world, but so has his original identity. Continuing the pattern started with its introduction to the US, Wally got a new name and it seems, a new attitude with every country he was introduced. In some countries, Waldo retained the whimsical "˜w' in his name: For example, in Germany, he's Walter ("Wo ist Walter?") and in Norway, he's Willy ("Der hvor er Willy?"). But in France, he became Charlie ("Ou est Charlie?"), in Denmark, Holger and in Israel, Effi. According to Wikipedia (and therefore not entirely to be believed), American Waldo is a hipper, more "tech-savvy" traveler, while British Wally is a bit of a dork.

These days, Waldo and Wally (and Walter, Willy, Charlie, Holger and Effy) have been popping up in some pretty interesting places "“ and in some cases, in incredibly large numbers. This April, students at Rutgers University earned a Guinness Book of World Records distinction for the most number of people dressed as Waldo in one place.

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In 2006, Waldo met with a bit of misadventure: According to Internet lore, he appeared in a field of corpses, with an arrow through his head, in a single frame of the theatrical release of the film Apocalypto. And that's not all: Now that Google Streetview has canvassed more of the earth, Waldo/Wally was recently seen at 77 Putney High Street in London; in 2008, Google Earth made a 55-foot tall version of Wally on top of a building visible; he's been found in some pretty atrocious fanfiction on the Internet; and he even made an appearance at this year's ComicCon, flanked by two scantily clad Waldettes.

Word also has it that we might be seeing more of Waldo in the near future "“ Universal has recently acquired the rights to the Where's Waldo? franchise and plans to make the beloved if plot-less books into a live action family film.

So, who do you think should play Waldo in the movie? Do you have any Waldo memories that stand out (say, the nearly topless lady in the beach scene)? Waldo/Wally turns 22 on September 21 "“ any plans to celebrate the worldwide wanderer's birthday?

August 3, 2009 - 11:25am
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