Local artist John Peña documents life with ‘Daily Geology’


By Jack Trainor / Staff Writer

“Daily Geology” sounds like the title of a leather-bound textbook containing illustrations of glossy, fuming volcanos and cliff faces. Assumptions aside, it’s really the title of a daily autobiographical comic, drawn by Lawrenceville-based artist/cartoonist and CMU professor John Peña, whose everyday confessions and self-examinations give the comic depth. 

Peña said that the comic is a way for him to make sense of his world through art. As for the name, “I’m still thinking about it,” he said. “I thought of it as layering, like sediment … when I started [“Daily Geology”], it was so thin. And then one day I had a whole stack of drawings, and they were all kind of jutting out in different layers — and so I thought of a life as a geological process.”

Indeed, Peña isn’t shy to reveal his most personal reflections about himself, his relationships or his Irritable Bowel Syndrome to his audience. While the drawings themselves are seldom graphic, the ones that are, or contain exceptionally dark or harmful material, aren’t published to his website, dailygeology.com

“Those [missing dates] are usually pretty exposed, dark, more unnerving images that are too sensitive to put on the Internet,” Peña said. “Whether that’s an interaction I had with somebody that resulted in an argument or something really painful.”

A text to image relationship weaves through “Daily Geology,” as each drawing is usually accompanied by a paragraph of Peña’s carefully intimate words, reading like diary entries. 

Although with “Daily Geology,” anyone can read the personal insight into Peña’s life.

“When we found [“Daily Geology”] as freshmen, it felt like you were learning some secret about your professor’s personal life,” Minnar Xie, a former student of Peña’s, said in an email. “We felt like we shouldn’t be reading it.”

When asked how many drawings he’s done, Peña doesn’t hesitate before answering, “Well, what’s 365 times 5?” 

Peña, who received his M.F.A. from CMU in 2008, has been uploading his comics to his website since 2010. He began the project unofficially at least three years before the earliest Daily Geology upload. 

Daily Geology was conceived from years of reading comic strips such as Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” and Gary Kochalka’s similarly autobiographical “American Elf.”  

Peña also cites Douglas Coupland’s novella “Life After God” as one of his biggest influences — specifically the author’s vignettes before every chapter. 

Peña said that Coupland drew them “with a Bic pen — he made a crappy line drawing. What I liked about that so much is that he was clearly not a good craftsman, but what he was doing was he was trying his best to make sense of something by drawing.”

Sam Ward, another of Peña’s former students, said most of his students are aware of the comic and its intensity. 

“It’s fascinating to see a professor really vulnerable and really open about [himself],” she said in an email. “It’s important that professors are engaged in the [art] community because I think it gives us as students hope that we can also make a living making art and working with a community.”

While he may not post his most graphic comics, Peña doesn’t let subject matter deter him from creating every day, a task that he’s maintained for five years.

“My first two-and-a-half years, I was trying really hard to be smart and clever and funny and it was extremely dishonest,” he said. “So I didn’t show a lot of people when I was doing them.” 

It took the support of his friends and an intense work ethic that his parents instilled in him at an early age to push through his initial timidity. He also sells collections of “Daily Geology” cartoons in self-published books. On top of the daily drawings, Peña maintains his daily “Letter to the Ocean” project, in which he addresses a letter to the Pacific Ocean. After the post office returns them to Peña, he puts them on display in an exhibition, which has accumulated more than 3,000 letters since 2003. He currently has an exhibit at the Mattress Factory entitled “Word Balloons” that features large, three-dimensional speech bubbles, supported by 2x4s.

As for the future of “Daily Geography,” Peña doesn’t have any definitive plans, but he is open to ending the series, one day. 

“It comes and goes in waves,” he said of his enthusiasm. “Sometimes I think ‘what’s the point of all of this?’ And then I make a drawing of me thinking about it.”