Artist: Alti Firmansyah
Letterer: Joamette Gil
Publisher: Comixology Originals
Publication Date: May 2023
It’s Yan’s first time at Baking Club, and she really had to rally to get up the gumption to walk through the door. If 26 job interviews and 0 offers taught her anything, it’s that her suspicions were correct. She does not make a good first impression. But she loves baking and wants friends, and maybe once she’s proved herself (baking pun not initially intended, but embraced) with a great bake, they’ll have reason enough to accept her. She’s given a warm introductory welcome by Baking Club founder Bea and is led to a table of staring strangers’ faces. Her brain is whirring like a hand mixer cranked to the max – “Why is he smiling so much? Do I have something on my face?” “I don’t think she likes me!” And when she realizes that she’d seen one of the faces at the bus stop, “It’s the guy on the phone… oh no, is that guy going to think I followed him?” Yan nearly jumps out of her skin when Bea pulls the plug on her agitated thoughts, “Cuppa tea?”
I found this early scene in Turtle Bread by Kim-Joy and Alti Firmansyah deeply and blushingly relatable. Like Yan, I am plagued with gnawing social anxiety. My heart clenched while I witnessed her grit her teeth through her first Baking Club meeting – attempting to present normal as her internal narrator kept popping up to distract her, “Say something more interesting, Yan –” “Need to laugh enough, but not too much.” I, too, have this inner critic incessantly running her mouth, arguing a compelling case for why everyone is politely hating me. I’ve improved a lot as I’ve matured. However, there are still times I return home from an ostensibly pleasant evening of socializing to lie awake in bed, sifting through every minute interaction and finding evidence for why I am insufferable.
Turtle Bread is about a chronically shy woman who uses her passion for baking as an incentive to come out of her shell and experience the healing power of friendship. My curiosity for Turtle Bread initially peaked because the writer, Kim-Joy, was a contestant on Series 9 of Great British Bake Off, a show I am tremendously nerdy for. Kim-Joy always stood out to me amongst the myriad of GBBO alums for her twee bakes adorned with smiling woodland creatures, buzzing bees, and red mushroom caps that reflected her personal aesthetic that screamed ‘cottagecore.’ She always struck me as a kindred spirit. She never reminded me of me, but of the kind of person I’d want to get over myself to try and befriend. Kim-Joy’s entry into comics with Turtle Bread doesn’t seem to be a departure from Kim-Joy’s creative pursuits on Bake-Off but a natural, graceful extension. The book centers not only around baking, but the pages contain fully illustrated interstitial recipes, complete with weights, just in case you want to bake along with the Baking Club.
Before her second meeting, Bea catches Yan faltering outside the bakery, trying to gather the courage to walk through the entrance. Bea greets her with a sympathetic smile, “I think you’re feeling brave.” Yan looks stunned and admits that she is a little nervous. Bea assures her, “I understand.” Then we watch helplessly as Yan gets whisked into a shame spiral. We see Yan try to swallow down the lump in her throat, but it’s too late – the tears are already pricking the corners of her eyes. It’s drawn all over Yan’s stricken face. I know that panic, that embarrassment, and Alti Firmansyah depicts it with such specificity and deep empathy. Firmansyah’s art is both expressive and aspirational. Her characters are bubbly and truly inviting like I could bust into the panel, grab a wooden spoon and start beating the choux pastry to make those sticky, profiterole piggies.
At different points, Yan pulls out a tool she had gotten from her therapist called her “Thought Diary.” It’s a printed packet held together by a corner staple, with a chart on which she can log her social exposures and record her emotional reaction on a scale of one to one hundred. In high school, my anxiety manifested a destabilizing bout with clinical depression, and I remember getting similar packets from my therapist. I was gut-wrenched and uncannily nostalgic to see Yan scribbling manically in the “Balanced Thought” column. We never actually see Yan with her therapist, but it’s normalizing to see the concerted effort it takes for Yan to wrangle her social anxiety. Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to not have social anxiety constantly humming in my brain. Sometimes it’s quiet, but it’s always there. Turtle Bread reminds me that hypersensitivity to others also can be a gift. It comes from my profound desire to be loved and genuine care and curiosity about people’s thoughts.
As someone who has struggled and has, little by little, learned to manage her own mental health, Turtle Bread bowled me over with how genuine Yan’s journey with her mental health comes across without ever getting too bleak or harrowing. I would thrust Turtle Bread into the oven mitts of any fellow GBBO-stan, baking enthusiast, or anyone in the mood for a cozy comic that will leave their hearts warmed and feeling a bit snacky. While Turtle Bread comes to a satisfying conclusion, with Yan in a much better balance with her social anxiety, I wouldn’t mind seeing multiple volumes from Kim-Joy and Alti Firmansyah. I am smitten with Yan and all her Baking Club buds, each of whom has their own mental health challenges as they build their patisserie skills. Kim-Joy and Firmansyah make a delectable creative team, and with a book as sweet and delicious as Turtle Bread, there is no surprise that I am coming back, dessert fork in hand, looking for seconds.
Turtle Bread is out now digitally from ComiXology Originals, with a print version from Dark Horse Comics slated for fall.