Syphon is the latest comic-book effort by Patrick Meaney, better known by his quite informative and insightful documentary works on iconic comic book writers such as Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously. Meaney had shown in the past that he has the skills and knowledge necessary to put together a pretty good comic: 2014’s Last Born is a short little treat with good writing, interesting visuals, and an engaging, mostly well-paced plot that works perfectly fine for a 4-issue story.
All of the elements that I enjoyed about Last Born can be found again in Syphon, with one major exception that we will discuss later. The book was co-written by Meaney and Mohsen Ashraf, and tells the story of Sylas, an EMT who is always doing his best to try and help his patients. One day, Sylas is visited by the ghost of a mysterious woman, who gives him the power to feel the pain of others around him. At first, this looks like a great opportunity to help even more people, but it soon dawns on him that he cannot just switch off the power, and so he is forced to suffer the pain of everyone he comes across, which in turn hurts his own relationships.
Thus, Sylas’ relationship with his new girlfriend becomes worse and worse, as he’s incapable of focusing on her because of how loud everyone’s feelings are to him. This frustration builds up until they have an argument in public, which ends with Sylas storming out of an ice rink, only to be shot by a criminal when he tries to help an innocent bystander who was being robbed. He wakes up inside what looks like a fancy office, where a man (who was featured briefly at the beginning of the book and is implied to be the main villain of the story) assures him him that he will teach him to control his powers.
Right off the bat, this is a very interesting premise. The idea of a “superhero” who can literally feel people’s pain is something that can be used to explore a lot of interesting themes related to personal relationships, sacrifice, and heroism, and the book does somewhat hint at these themes during the issue. The execution is fine, too: the main character being an EMT means he has a predisposition to help people, and the way he’s introduced makes him look like a very sympathetic person that the reader can relate to.
The art is also very high-quality, and reminiscent of some of Joe Bennett’s best works. Jeff Edwards’s detailed and expressive art style matches the tone of the story, and the inks really help to accentuate the expressions of some characters in crucial moments, especially during the night time. The colors are also used wisely, keeping the palette desaturated during the more down-to-earth parts, while using more vivid colors for supernatural powers, impactful moments, and blood.
What I have a problem with, however, is the pacing. This is the first issue of a 3-issue series, but the kind of story it’s trying to tell would need at least another one or two issues (depending on what they end up doing on issue 2) to properly flesh out the characters and their interactions. It’s clear they’re trying to do the whole “superhero origin” plot as quickly as possible so they can get to the meat of the story in the next part, but unfortunately it doesn’t work very well. Things happen way too quickly for them to properly register in the reader’s mind.
For example, Sylas meets with a neighbor shortly after getting his powers, and they flirt for a bit. Then, the narrative skips ahead, depicting a collection of scenes of them going on dates and generally being together to show to the audience that Sylas and her got together. But he isn’t truly enjoying his life with her because of the powers he recently attained. These pages are very well put together, and under any other circumstance I would praise them to no end, but the problem is that we don’t really get to see what their relationship is like outside of these little contextless scenes. And once they’re over, they have an argument. And less than two pages later, Sylas quite literally blows up on the robber. And then the main villain is introduced into the story, giving the impression that they tried to shove as much information into this issue as possible.
I think that is about the only true problem I have with this book, and unfortunately, it’s a very big one that really hurts Sylas’s character development and the depiction of his love life: he goes from an optimistic and cheerful young man to a depressed mess in a few pages, and his relationship with his girlfriend starts off screen, then deteriorates in the span of a couple of pages. This is especially damning considering that this book is all about stress, pain, and how people cope with them, and it fails to successfully engage with these themes on a deeper level precisely because how quickly it glances over Sylas’s transformation.
That said, the dialogue manages to be engaging and – while being straightforward and to the point – doesn’t feel rushed or forced. There are many comics that focus on pointless details and try to be “realistic” with pages and pages of dialogue that would be more fitting of a novel. Syphon avoids this problem by focusing only on the essentials, and its visual storytelling is outstanding, despite my issues with the plot. Like I explained before, the scenes in which the plot skips ahead are very well-crafted and provide a general idea of what’s going on in Sylas’s life, even if they don’t work on a larger scale because of how compressed the plot already is.
All in all, Syphon is a competent book with an interesting premise, outstanding art, and a very likeable main character. And while it’s very entertaining and I would still recommend it to any comic fan looking for a short little story, its potential is squandered by how short the series is and by how fast the plot needs to move along as a consequence, causing a severe case of compressed storytelling. I don’t know if the short run of this series is a creative decision or if it was editorial mandate, but this kind of story does not fit the format at all, and it’s a shame because, again, there’s a lot of potential here. I believe this first issue should’ve been all about Sylas getting used to his powers and getting to know his girlfriend before their relationship deteriorated.
Under a different set of circumstances, I would be very excited to continue to read this story as it comes out, but considering this fatal flaw, I will not get my hopes up unless issue 2 fixes this problem in a meaningful way. If I had to give it a numerical score, I would say a 6.5 out of 10 is fair for this issue, as despite how much I like most aspects of the book, the one that fails is perhaps one of the most fundamental things to get right in a comic book.