Sometimes it pays to stick your head in the sand

I first encountered Martin Handford at Maidstone College of Art back in 1980. He was a couple of years above me and had got himself onto the prestigious illustration course, which at that time was one of the best in the country. (The college has since been merged into the Kent Institute of Art in Canterbury.)

At the time I remember him being a pretty chirpy chap despite being so skint that he had resorted to selling his entire wardrobe, including an impressive pair of brothel creepers, in a desperate bid to raise much needed funds.

Unlike all his compatriots at Maidstone, Martin stood out from the crowd ('crowd' being an appropriate word to use here). You see, all he ever drew were crowd scenes. And his technique hadn't changed a jot since he was a young lad. He would labour over his intricate compositions for weeks on end, using nothing more than felt tips. And his finished pieces were mind-bogglingly detailed with countless characters immaculately rendered in miniature.

The tutors at Maidstone went to great pains to get him to experiment and evolve his style of drawing, but Martin wasn't having any of it. For his entire time at Maidstone, he continued producing the most astonishing series of crowd compositions, and I very clearly remember his final year exhibition, which attracted by far the largest number of visitors who seemed drawn by these unusual works like bees around a honey pot. One piece in particular still sticks in my memory. It was a crowd scene depicted at Lords cricket ground. Besides being able to see thousands of spectators, ones eyes were drawn to the playing area where you could discern several little white figures, and one solitary pink figure jumping over the stumps. This, of course, was the famous Lords streaker whose unexpected appearance during the 1975 test match prompted the late John Arlott to coin the phrase 'freaker.' "We have a freaker down the wicket," quipped Arlott. "It's not very shapely; it's masculine; and I would think it's seen the last of its cricket for the day."

By this stage, Martin was already getting real illustration jobs for national publications and was much in demand. A couple of years later while in my first advertising agency and working with my Art Director, Colin Underhay (also from Maidstone), we had the opportunity to employ Martin's considerable talents. The agency wanted to create a special Christmas card, and Martin seemed like the ideal illustrator for the job. We deliberately kept the creative brief fairly open and asked Martin to create an amusing Oxford Street Christmas scene. His solution was certainly novel. The scene he came up with depicted a throng of shoppers intermingled with  a series of unconventional Father Christmases indulging in the most uncharacteristic activities including vomiting, urinating, mugging passers-by and in one instance, carrying a blow-up sex doll. It was a kind of modern-day take on one of those debauched scenes by Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch.And had it been produced in today's politically correct atmosphere, I'm sure it would have been shelved in favour of something rather tame and less offensive. But this, of course, was 1980. The card went into production and was sent out to all the agency's clients.

In 1986, Martin was asked by Walker Books to create a character with distinctive features that would give his compositions a focal point in much the same way as his pink figure jumping over the stumps or his Father Christmases did. His response was to come up with a character named 'Wally' - a world traveller and time travel aficionado. And in 1987 'Where's Wally?' first appeared in the UK. Its popularity was instantaneous and huge. There would be seven books published in 28 countries. (In the US, the title was tweaked to 'Where's Waldo?') Then there were the inevitable spin-offs of notebooks, pillows, posters and video games, not to mention syndicated comic strips and an animated TV series.

By 2007, 'Where's Wally' had sold no fewer than 74 million copies worldwide, and in the same year Martin sold the global rights to the acquisitive Entertainment Rights group for £2.5 million.

I don't suppose Martin has recently felt the need to sell off items of his wardrobe. Though I suspect that signed copies of red stripy T-shirts might fetch a small fortune.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

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