As a child, Gerald Peary dreamed of Riverdale. To a slightly alienated Jewish kid in 1950s West Virginia, the fictional hometown of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Moose, and the rest of the Archie Comics gang was an American promised land, where attractive middle-class teens got up to hijinks while sharing milkshakes and competing for dates.
So as an adult, Peary — a Boston film critic — was fascinated to learn something new about that world: Riverdale wasn’t entirely fictional after all. Bob Montana, the original Archie cartoonist who died in 1975, had modeled it on his onetime hometown of Haverhill. And he had based his world-famous characters in part on real 1930s classmates from Haverhill High. Peary tracked down one Haverhill man named Arnold Daggett who looked exactly like a 60-something Moose. He found models for Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead too.
“I walked away feeling slightly cocky, like I’d ‘solved’ the Archie mystery,” said Peary, who chronicled his sleuthing in a 1988 Globe magazine article.
Now he is back with a sequel, or perhaps a corrective: a documentary film he wrote and directed called “Archie’s Betty,” which makes its New England premiere at the Institute of Contemporary Art starting May 30.
In it, Peary presents a new twist, unearthed by his coproducer, Shaun Clancy: The real model for Betty may not be a Haverhill girl at all, but a girlfriend from Montana’s 20s — a woman named Betty, now 94, who had no idea she might have been a comic-book muse.
The adventures of Archie Andrews and his friends began in 1941 and were an immediate hit; postwar audiences later snapped up a million copies per issue. Montana, who had headed to New York as a cartoonist after spending his last year of high school in Manchester, N.H., was only one of Archie’s fathers: Archie Comic Publications says that all the characters were created by publisher John L. Goldwater, though it was Montana who drew them. Either way, those core characters — good-natured, mischievous Archie, torn between snooty brunette Veronica and earnest blonde Betty; Archie’s nemesis Reggie; the goofy, permanently hungry Jughead; the jock Moose and his cute girlfriend, Midge — have persisted as the series has spun off non-white characters, a gay wedding, supernatural comics, a “Jersey Shore” parody, and foreign editions.
Peary, 70, at his home in Cambridge recently, spoke thoughtfully about his childhood identification with both Archie (“a wiseass,” he said) and Jughead (“the first slacker, I think, in comics”). He was and remains a Betty guy: “I never cared for Veronica; she was too haughty and upper class.” But it took Clancy, who hadn’t even liked the Archie series as a kid, to reopen the mystery of those characters’ origins.
Originally from Lawrence, Clancy is an amateur comics historian who now lives near Seattle, where he owns a heating and air conditioning company. On a visit home around 2010, Clancy said by phone, he was surprised to learn of Archie’s Haverhill roots from his father, who like his mother and three of his grandparents attended Haverhill High. A bit of research turned up Peary’s 1988 article, and eventually the two decided to collaborate on the film.
For the movie, which begins by revisiting the Haverhill history, Clancy confirmed many of Peary’s earlier discoveries and added new ones. Archie and company hang out at the Choklit Shoppe; in real life, Montana hung out at Haverhill’s Chocolate Shop. The Riverdale High newspaper, like Haverhill High’s, was the Brown and Gold. Clancy, “the world’s greatest researcher,” Peary said, went through the comics “panel by panel by panel.” In one 1942 comic, for example, he observed that Archie, Betty, and Jughead skate on Plug Pond — a Haverhill landmark.
“My cousin was Archie,” said Jane Murphy, now 93, who appears in the documentary and is the one surviving member among Montana’s Haverhill friends. Peary, in his 1988 story, agreed, though Clancy points to a different Haverhill teenager. (Everyone acknowledges that Archie looked a lot like Montana himself.)
As Montana’s date to the junior prom, Murphy said by phone, she believes she herself might have been part of the inspiration for Betty, one character whom Peary couldn’t entirely pin down.
But Clancy turned up a different lead: He heard that the sister-in-law of one of Montana’s colleagues, Harry Lucey, had been the muse for Betty, and that she was alive and in New Jersey. The culmination of “Archie’s Betty” is Peary’s 2012 trip to meet her.
Betty Tokar Jankovich had never suspected she had any relationship to the Archie comics. “I didn’t know,” she said by phone recently, from the assisted living facility where she lives. “I didn’t know that until my niece was telling me about it.”
Jankovich, who was 91 when she appeared in the documentary and is now 94, has a soft laugh and speaks about her past with candor and modesty. She remembers Montana fondly. He, Lucey, she, and her sister worked in the same building in New York.
“They had the office right next to our lockers,” she said. “I worked in the restaurant, and we went there to change into our uniforms.”
One day, Montana and Lucey met them in the lobby. “They wanted to know if we wanted to go on a date with them. They looked like such nice young men. I thought it’d be fine! So we went on a date. And then they wanted to go out again. But this was strange! Harry Lucey was my date the first date. And then for the second date, they said ‘Do you mind if we switch partners?’ ” She laughed. Her sister wound up marrying Lucey.
She and Montana, meanwhile, dated for a few months. “He was a very nice, special guy,” she said. But she felt they weren’t quite suited to each other. “I didn’t think I would fit in with Bob’s life and with his career. Because I came from Czechoslovakia, and I didn’t have much of an education,” she said. After they broke up, each married, and, she said, “I thought it would be best to leave that part of my life alone.”
Clancy said Jankovich was skeptical of her status as muse until he showed her “proof” — two times when her last name appears in the comic. Then she warmed to the idea. Participating in the film was “a wonderful experience,” she said.
Jankovich doesn’t exactly see herself in Betty the character. But Peary does. Meeting her “couldn’t have been better. She was everything I dreamed of, just this kind, vital person,” he said.
Murphy, meanwhile, who has not yet seen the film, was unconvinced. “It’s impossible!” she said. “It’s impossible for her to be Betty, if she didn’t go to Haverhill High School.” Everything in the strip comes from that time in Montana’s life, even if it’s a composite, she contends: “I don’t like to be the one to say it, but I’m the only one left from the group.”
For his part, Clancy says he feels sure that Jankovich inspired the Betty character: “Oh, yeah. There’s no doubt in my mind.” But he believes in the connections to his family’s hometown as well. “The only reason I did the film,” he said, “was that I wanted to make sure that Haverhill, Massachusetts, got the recognition it deserved.”
Peary’s initial quest had other motivations — his own childhood love of Archie, and his itch to see a mystery solved. His second foray into Archie arcana, however, has led him to a broader perspective: When it comes to an artist’s inspiration, there is plenty of glory to go around. “Everyone has their truths, everyone is Archie, everyone is Betty,” he said. He added, “I think the whole search has meant a lot to the people on the other side.”