TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Captain Citrus was born in 2011 as a big, fat talking orange wearing a green cape. Now he's being transformed into a buff Marvel Comics superhero who will fight evil alongside the likes of Captain America.
His first mission? Promote the benefits of orange juice in a country where carb-conscious dieters are increasingly turning away from even seemingly healthy beverages that nutritionists have slammed for having too much sugar.
The Florida Department of Citrus revealed its made-over mascot Tuesday at a comic book store. The agency paid Marvel Comics $1 million to create the new character in hopes of bolstering orange juice's reputation as a healthy and wholesome drink.
Americans are drinking less juice, which could also be a result of the vast number of beverage choices on store shelves. U.S. demand for orange juice peaked in 1998, with annual per capita consumption close to 6 gallons. Now it's closer to 3.5 gallons. Orange juice sales fell to record lows in August.
Most of Florida's oranges are made into juice. The state is second in the world, behind Brazil, in growing juice oranges, producing about 80 percent of juice in the U.S. The $9 billion industry is also facing its biggest threat: citrus greening, a bacterial disease that kills trees. It is spread by a bug and so far is incurable.
While Captain Citrus can't help with greening, officials at the Florida Department of Citrus hope he can sway new, young consumers into drinking juice.
The new Captain Citrus will be fit and promote healthy choices, starring alongside the Avengers in a custom Marvel Comic. The comic will reveal Captain Citrus' background (he is born and raised as John Polk, the son of citrus growers) and his challenge (to fight an evil enemy called the Leader alongside other superheroes, including Captain America).
Bill Rosemann, the creative director of Marvel Comics, said Captain Citrus is given a choice by the Leader: "Join me and we can take over the world," said Rosemann. "Should he betray his family and the Avengers?"
Fear not: Captain Citrus makes the right choice. In the first comic, he fights the Leader's invasion of Orlando with his special superpower: solar pods on the backs of each of his hands that can create weapons and other protections. The pods — like citrus fruits — are nourished by the sun.
Rosemann said his challenge in recreating Captain Citrus was "how we could reinvent him and still stay true to the message of Florida citrus."
Two other digital comics depicting the adventures of Captain Citrus will be released later. The material will be distributed to school children in all 50 states, officials said.
The Department of Citrus worked with Marvel Custom Solutions, which is a division of Marvel that works to create brands for campaigns. Often, Marvel will create new comic books and include a product — for instance, Iron Man starred in a special comic book in 2013 created for the Florida Blue insurance company. Other times the Marvel Custom designers will work with real-life people, such as athletes, to remake them with a "superhero image."
Rosemann said this is the first time Marvel has worked to transform an existing character into a full-fledged comic superhero.
"People don't drink OJ because they have to, people drink OJ because it's fun," said Department of Citrus Spokesman David Steele. "We wanted to reflect that."