Three friends walked into a bar and … saw the fourth dressed in red and white stripes, her red and white striped hat topped with a giant pompom. Waldo! We had all reverted to age twelve and dressed up for Halloween, but Jodi’s costume was the merriest. Except—what was the deal with the cane? Waldo never seemed that old. …
One person after another walked into the bar, laughed at the cheerful red stripes, and admitted (because I kept asking) that they had never heard of the cane. The next day, Jodi sent an official explanation from the online supplier of her $12 costume: “Waldo’s walking stick is the key to Waldo’s travels. The magical stick was given to Waldo by Wizard Whitebeard, and can open portals to far away lands, as well as travel through time.”
So many of us own pieces of magic that no one ever acknowledges. Waldo’s “cane” was a walking stick, and rather than signaling decrepitude, it accomplished extraordinary feats, sliding him past TSA agents, German shepherds, and Customs, and whisking him into the forgotten past.
At this point, I was obliged to admit that I never knew who the hell Waldo was. He had a backstory? I thought he was a primitive meme, a little caricature that caught on as graffiti in the Great Time before social media.
I think I had him confused with Kilroy.
Brushing up fast, I realized I had missed “a cultural touchstone” and “a global phenomenon.” This was not enough to interest me. What did catch my fancy, though, was the fact that Waldo was an afterthought, a happy accident, a compromise. Illustrator Martin Hanford loved crowd scenes, but his editors worried that a book of them would lack theme and focus. So he inserted a hapless, foolish little character who was always lost, thus tying the scenes together and turning them into a seek-and-find game.
The game’s novelty has faded; Waldo is over now. (Though is he? Just six years ago, 4,626 people gathered in Nagasaki, Japan, every last one of them dressed up as Waldo, to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. And so they did, breaking the Irish record.)
What let this goofball capture the world’s imagination and sell more than 78 million books?
The official answer is that humans love to search. Maybe not for lost car keys or a contact lens that fell into the rubbish bin, but for treasure, clues, solutions. When researchers gave people a Where’s Waldo scene, the rate of microsaccades—tiny, jerk-like fixational eye movements—shot up the minute they spotted Waldo. Our eyes are designed to seek and find, whether we are looking for Easter eggs (real or metaphorical) or the “Nina” that Al Hirschfeld used to tuck, in his wife’s honor, into his theater sketches for The New York Times.
Another answer is pure whimsy. The books were for children, but adults were charmed. Artist Melanie Coles painted a 55-foot Waldo on a rooftop in Vancouver, then encouraged people to find it through Google Earth—and to create their own Waldo painting for their rooftop. A computer whiz devised an algorithm to find Waldo by mapping all his previous locations and noting patterns. A journalist at Slate used math to track Waldo, on the assumption that true randomness is almost impossible.
A third explanation is the pictures themselves, worth thousands of words because they crossed language barriers. Waldo books could be instantly appreciated all over the world. The only translation the publisher felt necessary was a name change for each new audience. The guy we know as Waldo was originally Wally because “in England, if someone says something silly or looks slightly foolish, he is called a Wally,” as Hanford told The New York Times. In French, he became Charlie; in Hindi, Hetti; in Norwegian, Willy; in German, Walter; in Hungarian, Villi; in Italian, Ubaldo, and so on.
And for us he was Waldo? I cannot help but wonder if Ralph Emerson would have taken this personally. He, after all, called travel “a fool’s paradise.” From his pulpit, he warned that restlessness could not be escaped by a change of scenery. I picture him sitting Waldo down, glaring at his stripes, and preaching a lesson about “the indifference of places.”
I then picture Waldo nodding, grinning, and heading off for his next destination, oblivious to the correction and eager to help people solve their puzzles and problems. Hanford says the guy’s personality has changed completely, no doubt the result of all his adventures. “He is a cool guy,” now, and “he knows where he’s going,” Hanford insists. “He’s very open-minded. He’s kind.”
Travel grows you up.
Incidentally, the walking stick is not Waldo’s only accessory. He carries all sorts of things that probably looked practical in 1987—a kettle, a mallet, a belt, a shovel…. Today, we would need our phone, hiking poles, Starbucks points, and an AmEx card.
But not everything changes. Waldo first fell in love with Wilma, then her identical twin sister Wenda, illustrating the male propensity for attraction to the same type again and again. Wizard Whitebeard is the usual Gandalfian wisdom figure, old and male and White, who sets young Waldo’s goals and shoos him off on his journey. Odlaw is Waldo’s shadow, his mirror image (and name spelled backwards), his evil, mustachioed, yellow-and-black-striped doppelganger. Odlaw tries to steal the magical walking stick. Of this Carl Jung would have approved: our dark side is what keeps us from moving freely through the world, and it does steal our support.
Waldo accrued rather a lot of wisdom in his travels. His books show the world’s diversity, so no doubt they will soon be banned. Meanwhile, though, they teach us to pay attention, if we want to spot the hidden details of the universe. They remind us of the joy of discovery. And they warn us not to assume that people who look lost and quirky and extra cheerful are clueless, hopeless idiots.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.