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Indie Comics Spotlight: Top Cow's Syphon asks ‘What if empathy was a superpower?’
When Mohsen Ashraf, a venture capitalist and tech executive, met Patrick Meaney, a filmmaker and comic book historian, at the Sundance Film Festival a few years ago, they bonded over a shared love of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy. Ashraf, also a self-published author, had an idea for a story about an empathic EMT with powers to siphon pain from people and ease their suffering. He knew the concept needed visuals and discussed the options of bringing the story to life with Meaney. Impressed by Ashraf's concept and worldbuilding, Meaney knew his comics expertise and publishing connections could bring the story to life. Thus, Syphon, a new limited comic book series from Top Cow, was born.
Co-written by Meaney and illustrated by Jeffrey Edwards (Maybe Someday) with colors by John Kalisz (Suicide Squad: King Shark #1), the story follows Sylas, an EMT with an errant past who becomes the host for an ancient spirit that has the power to take away human pain with a touch. His powers manifest the morning after he wakes up on the street next to the dead body of a woman he does not know. Suddenly, he's spiritually connected to a long line of prior hosts, or ‘Syphons,' who have passed down their power for centuries.
Finding purpose, Sylas quietly helps the people around him, and his newfound powers even bring love into his life. But being a constant pain-magnet can become exhausting, and the added stress brings about a secondary ability, and along with it, a mysterious new benefactor, Antonio.
Meaney, who previously wrote Last Born for Black Mask, is best known for his documentaries Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, and Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously. Ashraf (who moonlights as an Apple executive) spent over a decade in the corporate world before turning to writing as a creative outlet. His self-published epic fantasy series Pantheon is headed to bookstores soon.
SYFY WIRE interviewed the pair via email and discussed worldbuilding, Gray Jedi, and how we are all a lot more empathic than we realize.
Mohsen, what drew you to fantasy fiction and comics from the corporate world?
Mohsen Ashraf: Storytelling has always been a passion of mine. I really enjoyed fantasy tales like A Wizard of Earthsea and The Lord of the Rings, and also reveled in grounded stories with magical elements like The Once and Future King and The Alchemist. After a decade in the financial and corporate worlds, I felt the itch to channel my creativity, so I resolved to finally follow my passion and bring my stories to life.
Was Syphon more daunting?
Ashraf: It was incredibly challenging to introduce a brand new character with a complex power in a way that was relatable but compelling. It was also a tricky balance to divulge enough of the story to hook the reader but not overwhelm them with an array of information. Patrick and I went through several story iterations before settling on the current arc to properly bring the audience into this journey with us.
Patrick Meaney: Co-writing was something new for me, and it was a really fun process, and I think resulted in a great book. Having two minds on the story, and getting to really dig in with Mohsen led to a really balanced and hopefully compelling story.
What were your reactions when you first saw Jeff Edwards' art?
Meaney: It was a real revelation. Our editor Matt Hawkins pushed hard to use Jeff, and I totally understood when I saw the first pages. He has the dynamism of original Image artists like Marc Silvestri, combined with the innovative layouts and storytelling skills of someone like J.H. Williams III. Over the course of the series, we would throw crazier and crazier things at him to draw, and he always delivered something amazing.
Ashraf: I was blown away by Jeff's creativity and caliber of work. His first samples really captured the persona of the characters and the essence of the power, but his additional touches really added some extra flair. I specifically mentioned eyes glowing when the power is being used, though the way Jeff brought that to life was really novel. He is incredibly talented, and I can't wait to see more from him.
Will Antonio turn into Sylas' Jedi master or his Sith lord?
Ashraf: Although I love the Jedi and am fascinated by the Sith, I've always been more curious about the Gray Jedi –– those who dabble in the light and the dark. The Star Wars mythos constantly talks about balance in the Force, though this is seemingly meant on a cosmic level rather than an individual level. But how are you supposed to fight the dark without understanding it? How are you supposed to conquer the dark in the universe before conquering the dark in yourself? Understanding and conquering that which is seemingly sinister means delving into, grasping its essence, and perhaps even mastering parts of it. We want to explore that in this story. The concept of good and bad, positive and negative, light and dark just seems so trite and antiquated. Nothing is absolute. Everything and everyone is on a spectrum, and that's what we want to showcase with our characters.
Meaney: That's one of the big questions of the series. We saw [Antonio] as a bit like Magneto, a charismatic person who seems like a villain, but actually has some interesting and provocative points. The relationship between Antonio and Sylas is at the core of Issues #2 and #3, and will likely be the center of future stories in the universe as well.
Sylas' power feels like weaponized empathy, is there a metaphor there?
Meaney: Definitely. For me, one of the big entry points for the book was the seemingly omnipresent flood of new pieces of bad news the past few years. If you're not worrying about political corruption, you're worrying about climate change or immigration or racial injustice. It can be easy to grow exhausted by every crisis, but at the same time, you don't want to turn away from it completely. Sylas' power is a way to explore this question of how can you make a positive impact on the world without letting it destroy you.
Your initial run is only for three issues, why so short? Are you in the process of developing more of this story?
Meaney: Kind of like the first Star Wars, a standalone story that can be built out further, [if we get] to do Volume II, it will dig deeper into the mythology of Sylas' power, and explore Antonio's backstory in more depth. We have a pretty deep reservoir of material to draw on, so hopefully, people will keep supporting the book, and we'll keep diving deeper into the world!
In the world we live in right now, would you want a Syphon's powers?
Meaney: That's one of the big questions of the series. On the one hand, the idea of being able to help someone in pain is so alluring and would be so rewarding. But taking on that burden of their pain would be tough. I think the end of the series answers that question in an interesting way, so you'll have to read and find out.
Ashraf: I believe we all have Syphon powers, just not in a supernatural form. We all see pain around us and we decide whether we want to help those in need or not. The way we help people varies, and while it generally is gratifying, it can also be exhausting and often ends with us carrying the burdens of others. The real question, and what we try to answer in this story, is how do we make helping others manageable without losing ourselves in the process.