Sylvia Toth has a problem. People love the cookies she bakes, but they don't want to eat them.
"My main frustration is that people will look at the cookies and go, 'This looks too good to eat,'" Toth says, during a break from baking at her Chapel Hill apartment. "And then I hear people go, 'I held on to that for weeks. It's just beautiful.' And I go, 'No! Now you can't eat it!' It's flattering on the one hand, and on the other, I'm thinking, 'That was a delicious cookie. You've ruined it!'"
Toth's cookies are delicious: fluffy, light-but-rich sugar cookies with a royal icing topping, made from local, organic ingredients. But one look at them explains why people are so reluctant to take a bite. Each cookie is decorated with a panel from a classic comic book, unique pop art images that make you feel like you're eating a Roy Lichtenstein painting.
The cookies, sold online through the Golden Age Bakery website, have earned a loyal following among fans of comics and pastries.
A comic book aficionado since college, Toth found she could print edible comic book panels using the same methods bakeries use to put photos on cakes: Sheets of frosting go through a printer with cartridges containing food coloring. Though it sounds complex, the printer in Toth's apartment doesn't look much different than what you'd use to print a letter or a tax form—though Toth is careful to add that it's a newer model and never had "regular" ink cartridges in it.
With the process, Toth can print out an entire comic book story on icing sheets, then divide each panel onto individual cookies, telling the tale through baked goods.
Toth sought out public-domain images—those whose copyrights had expired—from comic books published during the Golden Age. This period roughly spanned the late 1930s to the late 1940s when such characters as Superman, Batman and Captain America were introduced. For every one of those successes, there were literally a hundred other characters that fell into obscurity as the companies that published them went under, leaving behind a few buried gems.
"I found these images in public domain databases and went, 'Wow, these are gorgeous!'" Toth says. "I find it not only very clean—I like the lines and the artistic style—but it's hilarious. I find few panels I don't love, both as individual images and as part of a complete story."
This led to Toth's most popular cookies, featuring the artwork of Golden Age artist Fletcher Hanks. Though virtually unknown for decades, Hanks' tales of massively over-muscled heroes wreaking terrible, ironic vengeance on equally grotesque-looking villains developed a cult following in recent years when cartoonist Paul Karasik reprinted them in two award-winning volumes, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! and You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! Both received acclaim from the likes of R. Crumb, Kurt Vonnegut, Greil Marcus and others. (Several of the shorts are online for free at www.fletcherhanks.com.)
Karasik considers Hanks "the first great comic book auteur."
"He wrote, penciled, inked and lettered all of his own stories," Karasik writes in an email. "As a one-man-cartooning-band, his work packs the wallop of a unique and unified artistic vision. In the earliest days of the comic book, before censorship, it was 'anything goes!'—and in the tales of Fletcher Hanks, anything went!"
After Karasik saw Toth's Hanks-themed cookies on the website Comics Alliance, he contacted her about buying some. Featuring such images as a disembodied head glumly extolling "Have Mercy!" they're wonderfully over-the-top representations of comic book excess, and Toth has reproduced entire Hanks stories in baked-goods form.
"What I like about Hanks' character Stardust the Super-Wizard is that he's a superhero not confined by any limitation of powers. Whatever they want to give him, he has," Toth says. "We don't really use that in our storytelling any more. I think it's really interesting to not limit yourself, even slightly."
The cookies have earned Karasik's approval (though even he admits to trouble bringing himself to eat them). "Putting edible panels from Golden Age comics onto the tops of cookies is a bizarre idea, which is precisely why Fletcher Hanks is the perfect artist of choice," Karasik says. "Sylvia's approach could be correlated to Hanks' aesthetic: take that bizarre idea and execute it with decisive, straightforward simplicity."
He understands why the comics have translated so well to cookie form: "Hanks' work has a powerful graphic simplicity that is without peer in superhero comics. It would work on postage stamps."
Toth, a Guilford College graduate who works a day job doing "office monkey-type stuff" at UNC School of Medicine, started baking a few years ago as a way to bring food to a friend's Sunday dinners. Eventually, Toth decided to merge her love of comics and cookies into what would become Golden Age Bakery. After going through countless combinations of the "hundreds" of recipes for sugar cookies she knew, she settled into her current brand of thick, rectangular cookies formatted to accommodate the comic book panels.
Toth wants to expand the range of comics featured on her cookies, though she's still looking into what options are legal. "It's so hard to know who has the rights to these images, and I try so hard to do things correctly," she says. "The nice thing about these is that they're edible—they're made to be consumed, then they're gone. So it's a gray area—it's not a reproduction meant to be hung up on a wall, it'll be gone in a day."
Toth has a black belt in Ninjutsu, has done improv at DCI Comedy Theater and is getting married in March. Even with these extra obligations, she wants to expand her business.
"In my wildest dreams, I would love to open an actual location," Toth says. "It wouldn't just be for cookies—I would hire someone to make breads. That's definitely pie-in-the-sky at this moment. Right now, my goal is to build up a base of local customers, and have this as, if not a full-time job—because I love my office work—but something that at least supports itself."
And she already has a plan for people who are hesitant to eat her cookies—branching out into cupcakes. "I've never heard of anyone holding on to a cupcake for very long."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Let the Golden Age begin."