He's survived green, red and gold kryptonite. He's outwitted the wily Brainiac and the treacherous Lex Luthor. Even becoming engaged to Lois Lane didn't slow him down. But now, Superman has met his match -- lagging comic book sales.

As a result, this November the Man of Steel will die at the bone-studded hands of a crazed alien named Doomsday.

Yes, die. Zap. Pow. Kaput.

The news shocked Metropolis and the world yesterday when it was confirmed by DC Comics Inc., the New York-based publisher of the Superman comic books. Even the Daily Planet of Metropolis, the newspaper that employs Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, got badly scooped: News of Superman's impending death first appeared in a trade publication, Advance Comics.

"We're planning to explore what it means for the world to have to live without Superman," said Mike Carlin, DC Comics' editor. "That goes both for the world of Metropolis and the world that we live in."

Of course, it's all a publicity stunt. Superman will be back, no doubt, resurrected to be stronger than ever -- all the while selling zillions of comic books to anxious fans.

"We're all convinced they won't once and for all kill off the character," said Carl Bridgers, owner of Barbarian Book Shop, a large comic book dealer in Wheaton. "They say ... it's really going to happen, but I think they're going to have a way to revive him later on. Superman is too profitable a character."

The folks at DC Comics are playing it coy. "If I've learned one thing from Superman, that is to hold out hope, and people should believe and hold out hope until the end," Carlin said. "Obviously, hopefully, people will trust us to handle this sensitively."

Of course, this comes as quite a shock to the millions of people who grew up thinking of Superman as the ultimate -- and indestructible -- superhero: Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound etc. For 54 years, Superman has been the symbol of the comic book industry he helped create, a charter member of the Legion of Super Heroes and the Justice League of America, and the star of stage, screen, song and countless lunch boxes, T-shirts and other marketing tie-ins.

But in the comic book biz, you're only as hot as your latest plot twist, and Superman sales have been kind of flat in recent years, at roughly 150,000 copies per issue, a fraction of top-selling titles such as Spider-Man. That's a disappointing performance for DC Comics and its corporate parent, media giant Time Warner Inc. -- which recently came under fire for letting one of its recording acts, Ice-T, advocate the killing of police officers and now seems to be willing to casually bump off a superhero.

So in the same circulation-building spirit that led DC Comics to announce Clark Kent's engagement to Lois Lane two years ago and to kill off Batman's sidekick, Robin, two years before that, Superman is going to meet his supermaker.

The dirty deed will be done in Superman issue No. 75, due out Nov. 18, and will be set up in the three weekly issues before that. Doomsday, an escapee from an interplanetary insane asylum, will arrive in Metropolis and begin wreaking havoc. Superman, as always, will come to the rescue, saving millions -- but losing his own life in the process. Moral of the story: "There's always someone bigger than you out there," Carlin said, adding that Doomsday "is the most unrelenting villain {Superman} has ever faced... . He is just unstoppable, and he never gives up."

It's always possible that Superman won't come back. Indeed, antiheroes are more popular in comic books these days than superheroes, and Doomsday -- who also dies in the titanic battle with Superman -- may be a more profitable character to exhume. "That's one of the problems in working on Superman, is that he's too much of a good guy to the public today," Carlin lamented. "One of the reactions I'm getting from people is, 'How can you kill Superman?' Well, where were you when he was alive?"

Then again, a renewed Superman could be something quite different from the Man of Steel we all know and love. "We don't know what dying means for a Kryptonian," Carlin said. "We haven't planned, literally, for the return, and what's going to be different, if anything -- or if he's going to return."

Bridgers said speculation is already building in comic book circles that DC Comics will keep Superman on ice for around six months -- with other superheroes filling in for him -- before reviving him, perhaps as a shadowy figure whose identity is ultimately revealed to be the Man of Steel. "I'm looking forward to seeing how they handle it all," he said.

Until then, Superman is going to be colder than the North Pole surroundings of his Fortress of Solitude. It sure has been a tough month for mythic American icons -- first Woody Allen, now this.

Superman was the son of Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van of Krypton, and the foster son of Jonathan and Martha Hudson Kent of Smallville. Aside from his fiancee and longtime companion, Lane, his only known survivor is a cousin, Supergirl.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete, but there can be little doubt that the services will be very, very public. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the comic book dealer near you.