MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's a superhero from an orange grove. That's right. Captain Citrus is a real offering from Marvel Comics. The character was reimagined by Marvel at the request of Florida's citrus industry. The growers want Captain Citrus to use his juiced-up powers to help them sell more OJ.
Marvel's successful films and comics, from "Spiderman" to "The Avengers," have made them a hit with audiences and businesses. NPR's Greg Allen has this report on the growth of what's known in the trade as custom comics.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Marvel has teamed with Lexus, M&Ms and Kiehl's, a company that sells natural skincare products. But there are dozens and dozens of other companies lining up to work with one of America's hottest brands. In Tampa recently, Marvel unveiled its latest custom project, commissioned and paid for by Florida's orange growers. It features one of Marvel's top comics brand, The Avengers.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Captain America - but who is Captain Citrus?
ALLEN: Florida's citrus industry has been hit hard in recent years by disease, which has hurt production, and also by declining consumer demand for orange juice. With all the challenges, the industry asked Marvel to redesign its Captain Citrus character.
The old Captain Citrus was basically an orange with legs and a cape. The new Captain Citrus is cut. He's young, fit, and in his first comic adventure, uses his solar power to help The Avengers defeat an evil villain. And Marvel's Bill Rosemann says he starts his day with a glass of orange juice.
BILL ROSEMANN: He lives on an orange grove. And in the comic book, you see him with his family. They're having breakfast. You see how orange juice brings the family together and kick-starts their day.
ALLEN: It may seem a bit commercial - to purists, maybe even crass to use heroes like Thor and Iron Man to help sell orange juice. But it's hardly new.
Marvel Custom Solutions, a special division of the comics company, has been doing it for more than a decade. And long before that, comics were using their characters in advertising. Mike Perkins is a Marvel artist. He draws Captain America and other characters. He remembers seeing Marvel heroes sell products in comics when he was young.
MIKE PERKINS: They got those little one-page strips for Twinkies or Hostess CupCakes or something like that. It's a way of connecting to the audience.
ALLEN: Marvel Comics has been around now for more than 70 years, but recently the company and its comics have reached a new level of popularity. At Tampa's Heroes Haven comics, marketing director Ivan Plaza says he's seeing a lot of new customers.
IVAN PLAZA: The movies have been helping bring that traffic - you know, the regular consumer who never knew about comics or they just found out that they love, you know, these character and the only way to follow their stories is through comic books. So then we get new people every week.
ALLEN: Businesses are also more interested in comics than ever before. Marvel's Bill Rosemann says his division will probably work with a hundred clients this year.
The projects vary. Work with brands like Harley-Davidson and Lexus involve comic book art, but also using the vehicles in Marvel films. For projects like Captain Citrus, the company works with educators to create teacher guides to go along with the comic giveaways. And there can be a lot of comics. Florida's citrus industry is printing a million Captain Citrus comics to distribute through the schools. Rosemann says that's why Marvel sees these custom editions as opportunities.
ROSEMANN: Every day we remind ourselves that hey, many people may see these comics that normally don't see our comics. So these will be read by parents and kids, and this may be their first comic ever.
ALLEN: Rosemann said Marvel level can work with almost any company as long as it has a story it wants to tell, as did Captain Citrus.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Find out in the all new "Avengers Assemble" digital comic.
ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News Miami.
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