It was a little lonesome growing up in the hills of West Virginia back in the 1950s, says film professor Gerald Peary. As an elementary school student, he was drawn to the “hip, urbane world of the teenagers in Archie Comics." For Peary, Archie Comics were a glamorous passage to another place—the exciting environment of Riverdale High, with fast cars, the potential of girlfriends, and carefree fun.
Peary grew up to become an Archie hobbyist and wrote a popular article for the Boston Globe Magazine in 1988 about his hunt to find the real-life inspirations for the Archie characters. He investigated whether Bob Montana, the original Archie cartoonist, had modeled his characters on his 1930s classmates at Haverhill High School in nearby Haverhill, Massachusetts. “The thought that these Archie characters—who I was crazy for as a kid—could be real was totally weird but also potentially magical,” recalls Peary.
Now the search has turned into a film. Peary was contacted by Shaun Clancy, a fellow Archie aficionado—Peary calls him “the Sherlock Holmes of comic book detective work”—and the two joined forces for a documentary tracking down the inspirations for the cartoons. Archie’s Betty begins a five-screening run at the Institute for Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) on May 30. Peary recently returned from the world premiere in Argentina at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema.
He considers the documentary a nostalgic detective story—a trip into the past to discover those people who inspired Archie's iconic characters, including Veronica, Moose, Jughead, and Archie himself. In the movie, Peary interviews Bob Montana’s surviving classmates, a veteran Archie illustrator, and Archie experts (yes, there are such people) to determine the real story.
Betty, the blonde-haired object of Archie’s teen desire, is the film’s heroine. Amazingly, Peary managed to find her. Betty Tokar is now 94 years old and lives in a retirement apartment in Edison, New Jersey. Gone are the days of high school hijinks, but she was delighted to learn that she’s an icon nonetheless. “Many people knew she was Betty, but nobody ever told her,” says Peary. “Now she believes it. She’s a happy, lovely person,” he says. The pair’s meeting is a highlight of the film.
Peary started shooting in 2011, financing the film himself and editing it at Suffolk’s state-of-the-art media lab with help from several colleagues in the Communication & Journalism Department, including fellow professor David Reeder. A half a dozen students (current and recently graduated) also participated in the film’s production – serving as graphic and postproduction assistants, and as second camera and crew on several shoots.
Now, like any good filmmaker, Peary has to hit the road and promote his work. Luckily, he’s an enthusiastic one-man public relations team. “There’s lots of nostalgia for Archie,” he says. “My top audience is women in their fifties. They ask each other: Were you a Betty or a Veronica?” In addition to the ICA screenings, he’ll visit New England film festivals throughout the summer, and he’s gearing up to tout the movie on social media. “First, I just have to learn to tweet,” he laughs.
For Archie's Betty tickets at the Institute of Contemporary Art: https://buy.icaboston.org/public/show.asp