By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Florida's homegrown superhero, Captain Citrus, has undergone a $1 million head-to-toe makeover with the help of comic-book giant Marvel Entertainment.
The muscled-up Captain Citrus, powered by the sun and intended to help boost Florida citrus sales while fighting evil, was unveiled Tuesday by the Department of Citrus at a comic-book store in Tampa.
"Raising awareness of the amazing nutritional benefits of Florida citrus, especially among families, is a priority," department Executive Director Doug Ackerman said in a prepared statement.
Through the work of Marvel, Captain Citrus is no longer a rotund creature --- basically an animated orange --- from the Planet Orange as first designed by the state agency to be an educational tool to help the struggling citrus industry in 2011.
The old Captain Citrus was a chubby orange.
Now he's John Polk, empowered by mysterious solar pods found growing in his family's Central Florida citrus grove. In a debut issue of a digital comic, Polk joins members of the Avengers --- Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Black Widow --- to battle a "gamma enhanced evil genius" known as the Leader whose minions have attacked Orlando.
Oh, and clad in a muscle-skimming citrus-hued suit Captain Citrus is still spreading the message of the nutritional value of orange juice.
In the inaugural issue, just before Polk answers the call to help the Avengers, he advises his sister on the need to drink her orange juice as she is soon off to a cheerleading tryout.
The state agency is also providing a teacher's guide to offers lesson plans that highlight making smarter nutritional choices.
"Captain Citrus will show readers that while they may not be able to fly or shoot solar blasts, they can make healthy choices in their everyday lives and unleash the hero within," Bill Rosemann, who oversaw the development of Captain Citrus as Marvel Entertainment's creative director and editor, said in a statement.
The new Captain Citrus is kind of a badass.
Two additional digital chapters are planned. All will be available at CaptainCitrus.com.
The new face of orange juice comes as sales have declined due to increased costs and a shift in the eating habits of Americans.
Numbers published by the state department found that during a four week period in June and July, 36.11 million gallons of orange juice were purchased. The total represented an 8.3 percent decline in sales from the same period a year earlier.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that Florida, which is the top source of U.S. orange juice, earlier this year completed its smallest harvest in 29 years, with the industry suffering from the spread of an incurable plant disease called citrus greening.
The forecast for the coming year, which isn't expected to show any turnaround, is due in October.
The state agency finalized the contract with the Disney-owned Marvel this summer, using marketing dollars that were freed up as the department halted longer, high-volume TV time for ads, a move expected to free up about $13 million for branding and marketing programs.
The department's funding mostly comes from a tax on the sale of oranges and other citrus.