‘Open Earth,’ Volume One
As a longtime resident of California, I’ve witnessed multiple attempts to separate it from the rest of the United States: seismology, secessionist ballot referenda, and, after the 2016 election, the President himself. But until the new graphic novel Open Earth, I’d never seen California transferred directly into space.
Or, to be clear, a tiny fraction of its population. It’s a few years into the future, and some unnamed, manmade apocalypse has rendered California, the rest of the U.S., and presumably much of the world uninhabitable. However, unlike “planned exodus from a ruined Earth” stories like the movies Elysium and yes, Wall*E, this time the escape was more like a heist.
The protagonist Rigo’s parents are scientists who, with a few colleagues, blasted off to a space station to purportedly study plant-breeding in space for one year. Instead, they conspired to never return, or as Rigo puts it, “Let’s face it: They’re fucking sneaky scientists. They just left everyone behind.”
This is but one of the cultural rifts between Rigo–a millennial Latina who has lived her whole life in space–and her “Earthling” parents. But mostly, they have a strong and loving relationship, as does Rigo with her fellow members of the self-styled “First Generation.” The challenge, however, is navigating among those many relationships when you’re all confined to a small space and a finite set of people, presumably forever.
And this is the tubularly-extruded green “meat” of Open Earth. Rigo, like her peers, spends a little time working in a lab, but most of it hanging out and hooking up. And in this new youth society, sex is a commodity freely shared and rarely tainted by concepts like jealousy and infidelity. During the course of this story, Rigo sleeps with her love interest Carver in the lab supply room. She also gets cunnilingus in zero-gravity from another male friend.
But it’s her complicated, (mostly) non-sexual feelings for Carver that drive the story. When we meet Rigo, she’s chafing at living cheek-by-jowl with her parents, chill as they are. And Carver’s sister/roommate is moving out of their shared two-person cell to become the “primary” with a man whose baby she’s carrying.
That idea–of becoming her beloved Carver’s “primary”–takes hold in Rigo’s heart. She undergoes the familiar agonies of a “does he/she share my affections” story, consulting with friends, doubting herself, mentally preparing to bitterly give up the love object to an unworthy other.
This storyline is where Open Earth comes into its own. Rigo is a wonderfully drawn character, with an impregnable sense of humor and wryness but also the exuberant joy of innocence (for a woman who likes getting eaten out mid-air). We want Rigo to succeed in love, not because we feel sorry for her, like a Bridget Jones, but because we’re absorbed into her infectious joy and curiosity.
Eva Cabrera and Claudia Aguirre draw Rigo effectively in the other sense as well. They create a diverse character bouquet of skin colors, funky hairstyles, and body types. Narratively, they luxuriate in big swathes of dialogue-free panels where we just watch the moods on Rigo’s and others’ faces blossom and transform.
Admittedly, the book occupies an odd niche in comics: high concept sci-fi married to intensely granular interpersonal dynamics. But for me, that hits a personal sweet spot. I love big swings in sci-fi, but they’re often cold and cerebral. And I often find “personal” graphic novels a bit up their own navel for my taste.
Open Earth, however, straddles both genres ably. It has just the right amount of high concept to fill your brain (ex: Prior to the scientists’ escape, California walls itself away from the rest of the ruined U.S., opens its borders to Canada and Mexico, and becomes “the world leader in enviro-tech.”). And Rigo’s friends/confidantes/hookup buddies are an interesting mix of serious, complicated, mercurial and weird. But it never sinks into self-importance or pathos.
In short, Open Earth, Vol.1 gives us the ultimate “California getaway.” For a world so tightly constrained and compacted, it offers amazingly endless possibilities. I’m eager to see what all they get up to in zero-g in Volume 2.