INTERVIEW: Mohsen Ashraf, Patrick Meaney, and Jeff Edwards Explore the Cost of Empathy in Syphon

A person kneels down in a swirling pool of blood in an alley, reaching down to touch his reflection

If you had the ability to take away the pain of others by carrying the burden yourself, could you do it? Would you? Featuring a story by Mohsen Ashraf, written by Patrick Meaney, and illustrated by Jeff Edwards, Top Cow explores this very question in the new series, Syphon.

A person kneels down in a swirling pool of blood in an alley, reaching down to touch his reflection

When a fast-living EMT is entrusted with the power to sense and siphon pain from others, Sylas is presented with a new purpose: to ease the misery of those around him. But the more he uses this gift, the more it curses him with carrying the burdens of others’ pain. And it soon attracts the attention of mysterious forces who covet the power for themselves, forcing Sylas to decide whether he will continue his mission or revert to his old ways.

What inspired this story and how long has the concept been with you? How has it evolved since the first spark of an idea?

Meaney: Mohsen came to me with the initial premise, of Sylas, an EMT dealing with this ability to syphon. I think the biggest evolution was in building out the mythology of the story, and particularly his relationship with Antonio, the charismatic antagonist of the story. We talked a lot about giving Antonio a kind of Magneto vibe, where what makes him so dangerous is that maybe a little bit of what he’s saying could be right.

And I think once we saw what Jeff could bring to the art in terms of varied layouts and styles, we’ve really tried to write in a way that gives him as much to work with visually as possible.

Ashraf: The idea first came to me years and years ago, when I was working as an Investment Banker in NYC. I often thought about what good I was actually doing in the world, and what good I would have rather been doing. I was a bit of a dark and stormy character then (still can be at times) with some altruistic vibes so that energy was channeled into the initial spark of a character who would walk the halls of hospitals, get to know the patients, and take their pain away. He was meant to be an anonymous guardian angel, feeding off the feeling of helping others rather than fame or acknowledgment.

The character was originally meant to be a cross between Professor X (mental powers) and The Punisher (anti-hero), and there are still many elements of that we will explore in future issues. But he’s since evolved into more of a young man finding his place with this new power.

Do any of you have a connection with EMT training?

Ashraf: No, but the EMT background is meant to signify Sylas’ desire to help others. This is his calling, which is why he’s so burdened by the power – he wants to help people and it makes him feel good about himself. But now using the power makes him feel worse, because he carries the burdens of others.

Sylas could have been a number of other roles that help people, from a therapist to a school counselor to a soup kitchen volunteer. But him being an EMT adds a certain energy to the pages of the screen, allows him to handle himself in dicey situations, and draws back to the initial conception of a guardian angel in a hospital.

Tell us about the main character of Sylas. Who is he and what does he mean to you?

Meaney: Sylas is a guy who wants to make a difference in the world, he wants to help people, and that’s why he’s so passionate about his work as an EMT. He’s also haunted by some things from his past that make him feel guilty and constantly trying to atone. So, the power that he discovers, to literally take on other’s burdens, at first feels like a godsend. Once he realizes that all that pain he takes on himself lingers and weighs him down, the question becomes, how can he see people in pain all around him, and not help them, even though helping them is destroying him.

I think it’s relatable to anyone dealing with the world today. There are so many challenging and upsetting things going on, and obsessing about them can be debilitating, but at the same time, you don’t want to look away. Sylas is trying to find the balance we’re all seeking, but the stakes are even higher for him, thanks to his power.

Ashraf: Sylas is me, Sylas is you, Sylas is all of us who have wanted to do more to help others. He’s a normal person in the sense that he has his own baggage and deals with his own personal issues, but he’s good hearted and has a strong moral compass that can still go astray given certain conditions and situations.

Edwards: Sylas is like so many people I know. A big heart and at the end of the day all he wants to do is make the world a little better than it was yesterday. He finds himself with this incredible gift and the first thing he wants to do is help others. Sure he has made mistakes in his past, like we all have, but he feels like maybe he can make up for it. In the end, his focus is on others first. I think we all know people like that in our lives. Mothers who never think of themselves first. Friends who are always there for you even when most folks wouldn’t or couldn’t. Fathers who give up everything for their loved ones. We all know someone like that. So that’s kind of what Sylas means to me. He’s the guy who lifts others up, even if he’s drowning himself.


What would you do with this ability? Do you think you’d be able to carry the burden of other people’s pain?

Meaney: I think it would be really hard to be able to sense peoples’ pain as vividly as Sylas does and look away. So, hopefully, I’d be able to carry that burden.

Ashraf: It’s a great question because we all often want to help others, to do more, to save the environment, to support BLM, to bring about world peace, but we often don’t know how. This power gives people a chance to impact meaningful change, directly through people.

Interestingly enough, I feel like I already carry a lot of other people’s pain. Of those close to me, friends and family who I deeply love. I worry about them, wonder how I can help them, and often criticize myself for not doing more for them. The crazy part is, oftentimes they don’t even know it. So what good am I actually doing being like that?

But if I had the power, I would help others, and carry their pain, but not blindly. I do believe generally are in control of their own lives, but everyone needs some help sometimes, to either be shown the way or lifted up to succeed for themselves.

Edwards: If I had the ability to see other people’s pain and I could Syphon it from them, would I? I absolutely would, yes. Without a doubt. I think part of what makes this story so interesting is that this power is unique but it’s also accessible. I don’t think anyone can really understand what it would be like to shoot lasers out of your eyes or to be able to have metal skin or to actually pick a car up like a beach ball. But the idea of being able to take other’s pain from them? I think that is a power that is well within reach. I think most people could think of a hundred different examples in their life of a time when they wish they had a gift like this. I know I have. So yes, I would.

Syphon #1 is available July 21.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.