Story & Art by Ken Koyama
Translated by Taylor Engle
Lettered by Abigail Blackman
As someone who doesn’t get periods, my perspective on the authenticity and accuracy of Little Miss P’s depiction of them and cramps is limited to what I’ve been told second-hand. At their worst, I’ve personally imagined periods as being like the worst stomach pain I’ve ever had coupled with vomit-inducing constipation, a searing pain in my crotch, and a painful itch in my urethra that burns as I pee blood. Mental images like that are why I appreciate Ken Koyama’s vivid illustrations of period cramps experienced by the women in this series. I can’t think of a better metaphor for what being on a period is like versus when you’re not than the two-page spread of a couple looking out at the ocean, the man seeing the glistening clear water, wispy clouds, and stunning mountains, while the woman on her period sees a hellish landscape of raging flames, boiling lava, and demons stewing a pot of corpses on a ground littered with skulls. Through such visceral images, witty observations, and emphasized empathy, Little Miss P is able to humorize sensitive topics while educating and assuring it’s readers about common uterine health scenarios.
Koyama’s loose art and aesthetics are key elements to the success and appeal of its storytelling. Ironically, the simple and sketchy character designs, coupled with the goofy and shapely designs of Little Miss P and her cohorts, soften the blow of reading about painful topics. While aesthetically simple, Koyama’s art has a cute charm to it that allows you to drop your guard down and appreciate the goofiness in these potentially stressful scenarios than if the style were more realistic. This also allows Koyama to drift between the cartoonishly fantastical and the dramatically grounded more fluidly and readily within the same chapter without tonal shifts feeling jarring. Koyama also mixes up his panel layouts and makes use of exaggerated gestures and camera angles, and this dynamism strengthens the impact of his simple designs through cinematic panels and scenes. Little Miss P’s art may look deceptively hasty at first glance, but Koyama’s got a clear knack for efficient and creative comics storytelling.
Koyama’s art style and aesthetics are appealing in general. His linework is thin, clean, and loose, and while his anatomy isn’t always on-point his shapes and gestures convey a lot of character. While the manga’s characters and background art is sparsely detailed, he can still draft up some impactful visuals, like the aforementioned view of the beach and a later scene where a middle school girl is looking over the view of a forest and mountain range from on top of a cliffside at sunset, among other memorable scenes in other chapters. I especially enjoy how Koyama’s color illustrations are outlined with a graphic pencil instead of pen, then rendered with flat watercolors that use water stains to his advantage in the shading. Complimenting the art is Abigail Blackman’s lettering, which evokes this pencil-scratch aesthetic perfectly in her font choices, perfectly evoking it’s sketchy hand-drawn appeal It’s a simple, no-fuss style that Koyama makes work by playing up the cartoonishness of his designs while utilizing strong gestures to imbue them with a vivacious, appealing quality.
The visual metaphors in the book are also really evocative, describing complex feelings in humorously visceral ways. Illustrations of what it feels to have period cramps are the most common highlight, and descriptive visuals like a woman going for a walk on her period feeling like she is tugging Little Miss P riding on top of three wheels tied to a rope around her waist while trudging through sand make for really striking, palpable representations of the arduous pain. This is but one of many funny, evocative metaphors, which include getting hit in the crotch with a nail-bat, being punched in the gut, Little Miss P sticking a syringe in your ass to suck up blood, and so on.
Koyama also depicts the variety in period characteristics by drawing variations of Little Miss P in different chapters, most notably the one in which a group of four women of different ages visit an elementary school to educate the class on menstrual health. The different forms of Little Miss P depicted are both humorous caricatures and helpful symbols of different emotional and chemical reactions people can have during their periods, emphasizing that each person’s experience is their own. Another highlight is the ovarian cyst version of Little Miss P, a Terminator cyborg-esque depiction that fires a laser beam into a woman’s gut, which is a ridiculous anthropomorphization of a serious medical issue that both keeps the tone light-hearted while still effectively communicating the degree of its severity in comparison to a period. Of course, Koyama’s illustrations are funny and striking beyond illustrations of periods and cramps, like when an entire editorial office gets fired up to take on their sick coworker’s responsibilities, or a shojo-manga parody in which the rival smears butter on the protagonist’s face to humiliate her. There’s a lot of good visual gags and comic ideas that make the manga a delight to read, demystifying serious topics and having fun while still being respectful of them.
The key message Little Miss P seeks to impart is the importance of “learning.” It’s emphasized in two particular chapters that people, men especially, are often ignorant of period symptoms and effects. The chapter featuring a couple on vacation depicts a boyfriend flippantly suggesting activities that cause discomfort to his period-having girlfriend. Realizing his mistakes on their first day, he tries to be supportive and figure out what she’s comfortable with, but does so intensively. He brazenly asks her if she can go scuba-diving on her period at one point, which offends her so much that she refuses to talk things out further, thoroughly disgusted by his insensitivity. In the chapter featuring a group of women visiting an elementary school class, the male teacher in charge reveals he doesn’t know his own wife’s symptoms when on her period, and when asked how he’d help her he suggests ice cream, which the women blast him for. After hearing the women discuss the problems they face while on their period, and their inability to discuss it publicly, the kids’ response is to say they’ll be open in talking about it and helpful to people experiencing it, which like the boyfriend in the previous chapter also misses the point.
The problem faced in these chapters is that neither the boyfriend or the children really understand periods yet. Periods are a private, intimate, and often embarrassing thing that is still a natural occurrence that should be talked about without shame or placing the burden of making others comfortable on the person experiencing it. As a result of their ignorance, the girlfriend stops being able to trust her boyfriend, and the girls in the classroom still feel shy and worried about boys being weird about their periods. As such, you can’t be considerate about them without learning more, and earning the trust of the people they’re trying to help. The resolution in both these chapters shows this lesson taken to heart. The ignorant boyfriend gets dumped, but later when he is going on vacation with his new girlfriend while she’s on her period, he’s more attentive to her feelings and needs. He prioritizes her comfort, assuring her they can just relax and come back another time to do other activities. Meanwhile, one of the boys in the elementary school chapter goes back home to meet his mother’s Little Miss P in the kitchen. He invites her to his room to play games, hoping to ask her some questions about her. It’s emphasized in both these chapters that separating boys and girls in health classes have, for generations, stymied men’s understanding of periods and women’s health in a rift that deepens as they grow older. These chapters provide an optimistic perspective on addressing that issue and better educating people about these topics by encouraging conversation and making an effort to learn more. Even if you mess up, taking the time to learn about these topics will allow you to be more considerate and supportive to your loved ones.
Conversely, the manga also encourages people to speak up about their periods and health problems. Many stories in this volume depict women who struggle with their periods alone; a middle school girl tries to run away from hers, a workaholic manga editor tries to put off a health check-up, and an idol tries to stop having hers entirely. In all three of these scenarios, the women are encouraged to take care of their health and not be afraid of confronting their problems by friends and mentors looking out for them. The idol chapter depicts a particularly strong contrast between two girls struggling with their period, and how the influence of their mentor affects both their physical and mental health. One girl, Panami, has a mentor who makes sure she’s ok and offers her advice and solutions that make her comfortable. Through every step of her idol training, she is encouraged to express herself and what she wants to represent in her music. In contrast, the other idol Soniko has every decision she makes dictated to her by her manager, who actively encourages her not to think and suppress her problems. This causes her to experience an existential crisis on stage, when she starts to realize she doesn’t even understand what she’s doing/ Suppressing her period also results in her experiencing an injury during an accident since her bones have become more brittle from insufficient estrogen. This chapter, alongside the others, really emphasizes the importance of expressing yourself and not being afraid to ask questions, receive help, and confront any problems you’re experiencing, because otherwise, you’re only hurting yourself.
At the heart of Little Miss P is having empathy for what other people are going through, and doing your best to make their lives just a little bit happier. The two chapters that best encapsulate this are, ironically, the least grounded conceptually but the most serious topically. One sees a man in a zombie apocalypse do his best to help survivors by creating reusable cloth pads, a necessity other men in his camps dismiss but women desperately need. In another, two alien survivors drifting through space try to conceive a child together, hoping to create the family they’ve always longed for. Both sets of protagonists in these stories see a need another is having and do their best to help, even if it takes them a few tries. They also recognize when one another is in pain or is pushing themselves to a damaging extreme, and reassure them that it’s ok to be themselves and that they are loved for who they are. While these stories still touch on serious health topics like vaginal infections and miscarriages, their ultimate message is one emphasizing the importance of receiving love and validation from the people closest to you during a difficult time.
While there’s a lot of surprising depth and discussion to be had about how Little Miss P explores its topics, it makes some glaring missteps too. One of my biggest qualms with the first volume was the conflating men’s libido and obsession with losing their virginity as an equivalent problem to that of experiencing periods. This is patently ridiculous, since women also grapple with horniness and their virginity, and sexual desire is easier to control and less taboo a topic to discuss than periods are. Yet, the series only shows cismen grappling with Mr. Libido and Mr. Virginity, usually in contrast to women dealing with Little Miss P. Truthfully, this is less an issue overall with this volume than in the previous one, except in one glaring circumstance. At one point the boyfriend in the first chapter attempts to have sex with his girlfriend while she’s sleeping. She explicitly says no and tries to push him off but he doesn’t stop. This is attempted rape scene is played off as a gag, of course, since it involves Mr. Libido possessing the boyfriend, and he snaps back to his senses after Little Miss P punches him. However, this isn’t just some clueless mistake like the boyfriend’s other slip-ups; there’s really no getting around that this was an attempted rape, and having the girlfriend apologize afterward for reacting how she did is just infuriating. While the chapter’s overall message is solid, there’s no way to tactfully do a “rape joke,” and it leaves a really sour mark on it and leaves me uneasy as to what the author sees as forgivable displays of male horniness.
That said, while it’s not perfect, Little Miss P’s heart is in the right place. It has some genuinely thoughtful observations about how to have conversations about uterine health and better communicate and learn more when someone’s experiencing symptoms. I wish its depictions of sexuality were less cismale-centric and it was more trans-inclusive. But as it is, it still depicts a diverse array of relatable health scenarios, in both realistic and fantastical settings, and treats its characters with respect and empathy. The series is about feeling comfortable with your body and who you are, and receiving love and validation from trusted loved ones, and those are messages I can get behind. Depending on who you are, you may not agree, but I look forward to Little Miss P‘s next visit.