An Evolving Idea of Empathy: Talking about ‘Syphon Vol. 2’ with Author, Mohsen Ashraf

Also, at this point, the Warrior interviews need a disclaimer that they were conducted before the strike and some sort of boilerplate about supporting WGA/SAG-AFTRA.

BNP: So, let’s prime the readers who may have forgotten or need a refresher about what the book is. So where did the original premise of Syphon originate from? What were the inspirations and influences? 

Mohsen: Sure, sure. Um… Dude, I came up with the idea years and years ago, back when I was living in New York City, actually. And I was living with a gentleman who I’m actually writing Volume 2 with, Arish [Akanda] – we were roommates. He’s kind of introduced me to comics. And, um, I had the inspiration spurt of a character – I mean, you know, New York’s such a vibrant place, there’s so much going on, there’s so many people on the streets: some people that are crying on the streets, some people homeless on the streets, some people just, you know, in all sorts of ways, and I thought about a character that really just, obviously, helped people on the streets, that had the power to, um, physically help people, even when they weren’t able to help themselves. 

And it was initially thought of as kind of “Professor X meets Spider-Man” in a lot of ways, because this character had empathetic abilities like Professor X, but he still was very much trying to balance life, relationship, you know, kind of how Spider-Man does. And so the main character Sylas – he’s an EMT – he gets this ancient power; it’s granted to him to sense people’s negative energies and emotions and then siphon them away. So, he can literally take your pain away. The catch is he has to carry that pain himself. 

And in Volume 1 we see– Actually, it’s Issue 1 that, you know, that starts to wear on him. You know, he’s an altruist at heart, so he wants to help others, but it starts kind of breaking him down, stressing his relationships, aging him, almost to a place that it’s untenable. And I think it’s a bit of an allegory in terms of how we take on other people’s pains and burdens in our own relationships. And I think the pandemic really taught a lot about that to us in a lot of different ways. So, it was really just this interesting concept to explore.

BNP: So, riffing off of that, superpowers that sort of match the personality of a person is a trope almost as old as storytelling, right? And we have this EMT who has…not a traditional healing power, like you’ve described; it is sort of like you just take the whole thing, like if you’re taking pain, you’re taking the bad; if you’re taking joy you’re taking the memories of that joy. And we saw a lot of implications of that in Volume 1. What are some of the previews for Volume 2, so to speak? How does this evolve?

Mohsen: Ahh. [laughs] So… So, great question. Um, because Volume 2 we’re allowed to get much deeper…much deeper, just in the story, right? So, Volume 1 had three issues. Volume 2, we’re expanding that to four, so it gives us time to tell more story. We’ll learn more about the power itself. We’ll get deeper with some of the main characters. And what I’m really curious to explore is this idea of what is really the purpose of pain? And what is the right way to heal from it? Because that’s a lot of what in some ways Sylas struggles with, right? He’s taken on pain from other people. And at that point, he’s not even thinking about it, it’s just what he needs to go do.

And I think in the second story we’re gonna look at, number one, implications around taking people’s pain without consent – taking people’s pain as a band-aid solution, as a stop-gap, instead of them being able to kind of work through that pain themselves. So what is the balance of kind of addressing that, in a lot of ways? Um…so that’s definitely one element we want to explore more of.

The second thing, and you touched on this as well, is the consequences of misusing this power. Right, and we saw touches of that in Volume 1 with Sylas, primarily with the quarterback, um, that he essentially knocks into comatose, and then implications that he has with Antonio as well, and so we’re gonna see those manifest and double down in Volume 2, because the stakes are just higher, in a lot of ways. Um…and then with that, I think with Volume 2 we’re able to explore deeper relationships, first with Sylas and Olivia – you know, Sylas with the power, Olivia with the power. And then we introduce a few new characters as well, and I think people will be able to explore more of that and see different perspectives of the power. I’m also really excited to explore more of the lore behind the power itself. Without giving too much away, we’re going to meet four more carriers, wielders of the power, as well as a…kind of an ancient temple for the power that the team will visit. 


BNP: One of my favorite parts of Volume 1 was, I think, in Chapter 2, where Antonio begins waxing poetic about, like, the short-term mercy and this long-term survival, which really ends up being sort of like this hollow propaganda between the tough decisions that we make, which we’re not really making, so much as other people making them for us. Um, but, you’ve set Antonio to come back in Volume 2; there’s this sort of existentialism: everything matters, we have to care; there’s this nihilistic approach where it’s sort of like, “Well, I have this power, so clearly I want to do a bit.” How do you manage to write this larger-than-life villain while still trying to keep it personal for Sylas?

Mohsen: Interesting. That’s a really great question. Um… You know, first off, with the villain, with Antonio. Um, the thing with Antonio, he’s such a strong character. Not even with just his proficiency of the power, but when he’s on the pages, he kind of sucks up all the air from everybody else. And because of that, I think Sylas didn’t really get to shine as much as he wanted to in certain ways, or we didn’t get as deep with him as we could’ve. So, I think in Volume 2 we’re gonna take a slightly different approach with that, which I think will be refreshing for the readers but still give a chance for the other main characters to develop. Not to say we’re done with Antonio, because I think, you know, you see touches of his persona and his rationale, but you don’t really see the, call it the trauma or the experience that led to that psyche. And I think we’ll be able to go explore more of that later on. In terms of how to keep things personal with Sylas, I think part of that is, again, the relationships that he’s put in and the situations he’s put in that relate to this power and how that affects his life. 

But I think at the end of the day, the thing with Sylas is, he just feels too much. Everything, for him, is personal. You know? Every way he interacts with people, the sense of responsibility of helping others, the martyrdom type trope, that’s, I think, part of his key challenge, and you know, I think that’s one of the questions we’ll explore. It’s like, why was he chosen for this power? In some ways, he feels too much, and that’s a liability. Right? Um, in the other ways, what we’re hoping to show is like, maybe that’s his strongest strength, right? To have somebody like that to connect with others with this power. But I think he’s the type that will find everything to be personal in certain ways. 


BNP: Let’s pivot to some of like the behind-the-scenes stuff as well. This is a story that has a lot of collaborators – the first volume you’re working with Patrick Meaney, you’re working with, Jeff Edwards. You had the colorist, John Kalisz; Troy Peteri as the letters; your editors, Matt Hawkins, Elena Salcedo; you have a new co-writer for Volume 2. What’s it like collaborating with all of these people? What parts come naturally? What parts are difficult to do because there’s just a lot of people and you’re trying to make the best possible product?

Mohsen: Yeah. The collaboration is the best part – honestly, right? Because it’s… It’s also in some ways the toughest part, and it’s a part that I’ve had to learn really well, ’cause, ’cause my philosophy is, having created this, having kind of the story set in my mind, my goal was to be the steward of the story. Where I always want whatever makes for the best story. And that means having a lot of voices, having a lot of input, and having some creative tension sometimes. Because that really leads you to the best result, and it forces really difficult conversations, really difficult breakdowns of characters, of scenes, to get you the best story at the end of the day. 

For Volume 1, Patrick – you know, somebody I’d met years ago at Sundance, and he had done comics, so I’m like, “Dude, let’s go do this together,” right. And so he really helped shape a lot of Volume 1 with the story and kind of the, you know, the very meta mindset that came with Issue 3 at the end of Volume 1 was a lot of Patrick’s mind – he works in a really wonderful way with that. Jeff is just brilliant in terms of the art that he does. John really made the color shine, in a way that I think none of us could have expected, you know, honestly. Troy is still wonderful with colors, and then…and then Matt is kind of like a mentor, honestly. He’s the one that took me, a nobody in the comic industry, and was like, “Okay, let’s give this kid a shot. Here’s an artist” – he introduced us to Jeff. And Elena’s just great behind the scenes, getting it all together. 

And we have, you know, almost all of that team back for Volume 2. I brought in Arish, who’s one of my best friends and the guy who introduced me to comics, to help write, because he’s got some of the best storytelling sense, and Patrick helped shape a lot, kind of, of the narrative in certain ways, and he’s still a creative collaborator. Jeff Edwards couldn’t do the pencils for Volume 2 – he had a son that, you know, needed a lot of care and attention, so he was like, “Dude, I just can’t commit the time,” but was still a creative collaborator; we did a lot of designs with him, he’s gonna do some covers, he helped us with layouts, just overall, you know, strategy for some of the artwork. We have Thomas Hedglen, actually, coming in for pencils. Then we got John for colors again. We have Troy for letters again. And then, of course, Matt and Elena helping us on that side, and so, really great just to get everybody’s input and really great to work with.


BNP: So some new folks, some old folks, it’s a good little way to progress everything a little bit further.

Mohsen: That’s right, that’s right.

BNP: That’s exciting. This was your second comics project, if I have my timeline correct?

Mohsen: Right.

BNP: What did you learn from your first thing with Pantheon, and then how did it help with the scripts in the second project? Because writing comic book scripts is definitely one of the more intimidating things, because there’s not a lot of universal standards – it’s very much sort of like, you’re learning on the fly how to, like, give the artist everything that they need without constricting them, getting the dialogue to meet all of these weird constrictions you have. What’s that like, learning on the fly?

Mohsen: So, it’s interesting, because Volume 1, I think the creative process was incredibly different than Volume 2. Because Pantheon was always more of a book form, originally, and I’ve thought about developing that into comics, but that was written kind of purely as a book. But the creative fashion of Volume 1 versus Volume 2 was very different. Volume 1 was my first comic endeavor, and that’s why I relied more heavily with Patrick, because he had done this before. And I think there, we were much more prescriptive, you know, with, “This is the story, these are the layouts, this is how we want it to flow.” And Jeff had a very specific style: he wanted to read five pages at a time, draw the art, and then do it five pages together. That way, he wasn’t distracted later on in terms of what happens, and so it was very, I would say, even more structured with Volume 1 in certain ways. 

And I think with Volume 2, now that I knew how this worked, I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna be in the driver’s seat with this.” And so I wanted a much more fluid collaborative style, and what that meant was not being too restrictive, where I would chart up the whole story flow, I would have ideas of how I want pages laid out, but then really shape that with the artist – give the artist their creative juices to see, how do they want to shape the page. In a lot of ways, Thomas changed, you know, what we wrote, because he’s like, “Hey, I think this will just look cooler on the screen, or he’s like, “I think this will just add a little more touch to it.” And so in a lot of ways we were able to work through that and rewrite bits of the story to accommodate the art the way it came through of what really would delight readers as they looked at this. 

And as Jeff got involved, he was like, “Hey, you know, this is much more of Marvel’s style,” because it’s build-as-you-go in certain ways. We were actually able to do that holistically with the story, because I had an idea of where the whole story was going to go. Then once you start writing chunks of it in, you go back and realize, like, “Oh wow, there’s all these other different avenues we could take that still tells the same story but just in a stronger fashion.” And so you’re really going to see that finesse with the dialogue. I think that’s what’s really going to be exciting with this next round. 

BNP: Couple more questions from me. Alright, here’s a fun one: six words to describe Volume 2.

Mohsen: Ohh! Six words. Um… Deeper. Consequences. Consent. Lore. Pride. And Pain, I think, would be the six. 

BNP: This is a slightly more open-ended question that I like asking everyone: what’s a piece of media that you wish more people knew about? Not necessarily like your favorite one, but sort of like, “Gosh, I really wish I could talk with this with someone else randomly in the street!”

Mohsen: Huh… [laughs] Um…Hilda. So, so, my partner and I, dude, I watch cartoons most mornings. Honestly, I get tea in the morning, watch some cartoons. I went through all of, uh, Trollhunters. Arcane. Pacific Rim: Black. Um…and then found Hilda. And such a magical story. And it’s– Obviously, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a classic. But this also captures some elements of that.

BNP: Mm-hmm.

Mohsen: You know? It’s a magical, fantastical world. You have children at the helm of it. It’s never all that scary, but there still are some high stakes involved. And it’s just people being curious and good-hearted, and it’s so good! And I’m really excited for Season 3 to come out, and everybody I talk to I tell them about this and they’re like, “What the hell are you talking about, this is like a…”

BNP: Excellent. Excellent. So, anything else you want to share with the audience? Just like wholesale, free-roam?

Mohsen: You know, again I just really hope… Well, okay, so first off, right, like, such an incredible honor for Volume 1 to get nominated for Best Series and Best Art from Ringo Awards, which was in the likes of Sandman and Locke & Key. I was like, dude, incredible, that even just the community responded well to this series. And then to win Fan Favorite Hero was just unbelievable. It really helped showcase the fact that this character resonates with a lot of people. And that was really the goal ultimately, right. Where any one of us could be a Syphon. And the thought is, we do end up siphoning in our own lives.

With friends, with family, with loved ones, anybody who’s in distress, you take on that pain, right? You take on their burdens, you act as a safe space for them, you allow them to vent. And obviously, the goal is, how do you not let that… How do you not take that on yourself? How do you let it out? So the fact that it really resonated with the fans was – was brilliant. And so we’re really, really excited for Volume 2 to get deeper with the characters, show the audience more about the power, you know, meet the new characters, check out the new settings, explore the new ideas we’re looking at, and I mean, just really excited to share that and get people’s feedback of what, of what, um, allegories they have for this.

Want to get Black Nerd Problems updates sent directly to you? Sign up here! Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram!


  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

  • Show Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *