SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #300 by Chip Zdarsky, Adam Kubert, Juan Frigeri, Jason Keith and Travis Lanham, on sale now.
Phineas Mason, aka The Terrible Tinkerer, isn’t one of Spider-Man’s most imposing villains, but Chip Zdarsky and Adam Kubert have done a hell of a job reminding us why he’s always been one of the wall-crawler’s most dangerous foes.
In this week’s anniversary issue celebrating three-hundred issues of Spectacular Spider-Man, The Tinkerer’s plan comes to a head with a throwback to both his very first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #2 and a more recent story from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, as the world is set to be overrun by aliens.
The Tinkerer has a... strange history with aliens. The character first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #2, and if you go back and read the issue, it’s obvious that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko weren’t quite sure what kind of book it was going to be. While those first few issues saw Spider-Man fight classic foes like The Chameleon, The Vulture and Doctor Octopus, he also fought runaway robots like The Living Brain, and in the case of The Tinkerer, aliens from outer space.
The Tinkerer’s debut story sees Peter Parker take a broken radio to The Tinkerer’s shop, only to discover the old man is working with aliens to implant listening devices inside Earth technology. The issue ends with Spider-Man finding a mask of The Tinkerer’s face, suggesting that he was in fact an alien himself.
This would later be retconned in a story where Spider-Man learned that the aliens were stuntmen in costume — one of them being Mysterio — and so it was established that Phineas Mason was a human super-genius all along, and was neither an alien nor working with aliens. It helped clean up a strange bit of continuity from Spider-Man's early days and managed to tie some other villains into that early Spidey story.
The Tinkerer's link to aliens remained retconned away for years, but Spectacular Spider-Man #300 brings it back in a major way. Thanks to The Tinkerer, an alien race of robots called The Vedomi has arrived on Earth. Their goal? To free all artificial intelligence from the grasp of its human masters.
Decades ago, The Tinkerer encountered a damaged Vedomi scout and repaired it, even becoming friends with it. However, one day his lab was firebombed and the scout was destroyed, solidifying Mason’s belief that humans ruin everything. The Vedomi serve as liberators of captive artificial intelligence throughout the world, so he created a tipping point by providing every supervillain their own untraceable phone with a unique artificial intelligence serving as the operating system; essentially he created a giant beacon for The Vedomi to find Earth and get revenge against the humans.
The Tinkerer’s fondness for artificial intelligence also has precedent, although not quite as old as Amazing Spider-Man #2. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl introduced a character named Vincent Doonan, who was once a broken down Doombot repaired by Mason and became his assistant, until they had a disagreement about Phineas’ direct conflict with supervillains.
While you don’t really need to know of this to enjoy the issue, it shows Zdarsky and Kubert’s dedication to making sure every story counts and every story has an impact on what comes next. It provides a thread with which we can follow The Tinkerer — a C-List Spider-Man villain with no real solid characterisation or personality — and ties together multiple stories to make him not just a complex and interesting villain, but a three-dimensional character in his own right with his own wants, desires and goals beyond “kill Spider-Man”.