Empathy and humility should not be mutually exclusive. Instead, a humble mindset broadens one’s capacity to understand another, if your intentions are rooted in compassion. Syphon #1 from Image’s Top Cow imprint introduces a protagonist, Sylas, who already demonstrates both empathy and humility in his everyday life. An urban fantasy miniseries roping in some noir aesthetic flair, Syphon #1 is the first of three issues about an empowered empath. Syphon was conceived by comic book documentarian Patrick Meaney, co-written by Mohsen Ashraf, illustrated by Jeff Edwards, and colored by John Kalisz.
Syphon protagonist Sylas is a New York City EMT in his 20s, saving lives and easing pain-riddled victims through calming words of affirmation. He is an everyday hero, exhibiting heroic characteristics right from the story’s start. Due to the nature of his day job as a first responder, Sylas possesses natural empathy and sensitivity concerning peoples’ well being. A patient frantic over the loss of his finger in the back of the ambulance offers to repay Sylas’s alleviating conversation after the trip, but Sylas never demands nor expects repayment to come to fruition. Critically, Syphon #1 presents Sylas as genuine in his empathy. It’s this kind of humility that deems Sylas worthy of transcending his emphatic personality trait. Thus, Sylas’s transformation into a supernatural empath feels like a logical event.
Flashbacks reveal how Sylas is not without flaws, because he is still human, after all. Through a horrifying sequence of panels rotating to emulate a car flipping upside down and the fiery aftermath of a car crash, readers learn of Sylas’s involvement in the accident. Subtle uses of dialogue evidence a former drinking problem Sylas works hard to curb. Unassuming dialogue interspersed within the story exposition chiefly allow readers to assume an interconnectedness between the two crises. Rescue from a good Samaritan during the crash turns out to be an inciting incident for Sylas. Because someone saved him out of empathy, he dedicated his life to helping others survive accidents by becoming an EMT. The story is touching and formative of Sylas’s character. Additionally, this brief page provides a vital example of how human flaws can provoke immolation, but out of destruction comes an impetus for change and rebirth.
Sylas eventually receives power to not only sense other’s pain but also siphon pain from these suffering individuals. A paranormal encounter with a woman spirit introduced in Syphon #1’s opening pages grants Sylas a sight to visibly witness pain, extract the burden from a person, and thrust the weight on himself instead. Therefore, Sylas’s life takes yet another direction leveraged by his core propensity for empathy. Balance then behooves his actions. Syphon #1 posits a question extremely relevant to our current society: How do you carry another’s pain and heal their adversity without succumbing to the intense agony of that pain yourself?
All the themes in Syphon #1, visceral empathy, engaging with others’ viewpoints devoid of a personal agenda, and mitigating another’s’ misery without letting their burdens induce a schism inside your own psyche are splendidly displayed. Co-writers Patrick Meaney and Mohsen Ashraf pack Syphon with a gripping showcase of the human experience and a unique supernatural aspect. The beginning pages revealing ancient origins and multiple users collectively involved in the “siphoning” power come across somewhat nebulously on a first read through. However, the supernatural circumstances are interspersed through the narrative coherently, elaborating sporadically instead of opening with a mountain of exposition.
Beyond the veritable fantasy, Meaney and Mohsen write a sublime character I could read an entire novel about. Quick pacing is inevitable in a three issue miniseries. Their ability to make me care deeply about Sylas and proffer enough backstory for a full-scale analysis in one issue is astounding.
Let’s talk about the phenomenal art in Syphon #1. Whenever magic and siphoning powers takes centerstage, readers are blessed with vibrantly cinematic illustrations, illuminating light sparkling in popping technicolor on the pages. Illustrator Jeff Edwards and colorist John Kalisz create a synthesis of electrifying imagery. Adorned by Kalisz’s kaleidoscope of vivid violet and vermillion hues, Edwards’ experimental renderings of siphoning power usage lash out over panel gutters or explode over double splash pages.
Additionally, colors and shapes within speech bubbles supplement the supernatural atmosphere Syphon. Speech bubbles in the magic realm take on a loose congealing form against an orange tinted background. The imagery swells with a phosphorus glow, reinforcing the theme of pain and the magic-adjacent red color palette.
Novelist Mohsin Hamid says that “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” Perceptible through Syphon #1’s narrative, branches of this theme are exemplified by the comics’ artistry. Characters in Syphon are drawn with correct anatomy and proportions, but Edwards distorts true reality. Combining a semi-realistic art style with flairs of impressionism reflects echoes of realism. Moreover, we can identify with the characters’ resemblance to ourselves, easily empathizing with those echoing parallels of pain they endure.
Lately, empathy appears to manifest less and less. People adopt numbness or indifference toward overwhelming tragedy occurring daily, as opposed to responding empathetically. Largely, this emotional barrier is due to the simple fact that the human mind is incapable of processing the amount of information contained in a single day news cycle. Syphon #1 empowers an already empathetic protagonist with an empathy-driven skill. This beautifully-drawn first issue is elevated by topical thematic material. Syphon portends an ambivalent future for Sylas, but I am eager to see how learning balance will tectonically shape his destiny. Balance, empathy, and humility should function as touchstones of our own lives as well.