If you read comic books as a kid and then revisited them as an adult — or perhaps even followed them all along — then you know the way your appreciation for them often evolves. Batman morphs from a figure with a cool costume and crimefighting style into a camera-ready archetype with serious guilt and identity issues. Ditto for Spider-Man, who becomes even more about the great responsibility that famously goes along with his great power.
For local film critic and cinema studies professor Gerald Peary, Archie Comics were the childhood escape that would eventually turn into an object of deeper grown-up consideration. He shares his interest and ongoing curiosity in “Archie’s Betty,” an appealing, homespun documentary that actively wonders where original Archie cartoonist Bob Montana got the inspiration for his iconically whimsical teen strips. Peary had previously dug into the late artist’s Haverhill ties and not-so-hidden Archie shout-outs in a 1988 article for the Globe Magazine. But here, once again moonlighting as a filmmaker — maybe you caught Peary’s 2009 film criticism history, “For the Love of Movies” — he takes the longer look that’s encouraged by engaging interview subjects and an hour’s worth of screen time.
Peary opens with a flashback to his own school days in the ’50s, where he fondly recalls picking Archie comic books out of a barbershop’s reading pile. “The longer the wait, the more I could read,” he says, setting the film’s endearingly nostalgic tone. Suppose Archie’s Riverdale was a real place, he fantasized — obsessively enough, in fact, that when he caught a fleeting newspaper mention about the Haverhill connection decades later, he dove into his magazine project.
Peary revisits some of this ground, interviewing Montana’s high school classmates from back in the ’30s, and assembling then-and-now shots of the gang’s old, razed hangouts. (There was no querying Montana, who died of a heart attack in 1975, and in any case had always kept fairly quiet about his work.) Peary makes convincing arguments about who likely served as models for Archie, goofy Jughead, and resident jock Moose; he’s not quite as certain about everygirl Betty and snooty Veronica. Some evidence takes the form of obscure panels from vintage Archie stories and pages from Montana’s caricature-filled teen diaries, terrific visual treats that double as a chronicle of the series’ development over the years.
At the same time, Perry is broad-minded enough to recognize that he could have done even more homework back in ’88. Enter superfan Shaun Clancy, who’d join him as a producer. In the doc’s last act, they quest after “the Holy Grail of ‘Archie’ detective work,” pinning down Montana’s muse for Betty. They pretty definitively establish that it’s a nonagenarian New Jersey widow who dated Montana when they were both in their 20s, and whose reminiscences are as charming as anything in the movie.
Following her segment, Peary wraps with a look at recent Archie pushes for relevance, from multi-culti cast additions to zombie stories. But you know what? Seeing the Riverdale gang cast in a good mystery feels fresher than any of it.
★ ★ ★
Written and directed by:
At: The Institute of Contemporary Art, various dates May 30-June 14
Running time: 68 minutes
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.