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NEW YORK (Reuters) - He fought the Nazis. He is revered by other crime-fighters worldwide. But the beloved, shield-carrying superhero, Captain America, has finally met his end -- or has he?
The winged-hooded Marvel Entertainment Inc. hero created in 1941 is shot dead in New York by a sniper in the latest Captain America issue that hit newsstands on Wednesday, in a sensational comic-book plot twist that had been kept a closely guarded secret.
Blood seeps from his red-white-and-blue costume as life ebbs from Steve Rogers, the scrawny student who was transformed into the physically perfect superhero when he volunteered to be injected with "Super Soldier" serum during World War II.
But executives at Marvel acknowledged death is not always final in the superhero universe -- and they hope the same is true for flagging comics sales of Captain America, who has lost ground to more contemporary superheroes like Spider-Man.
"This is the end of Steve Rogers, the meat and potatoes guy from 1941," Dan Buckley, president and publisher of publishing, Marvel Entertainment, told Reuters.
"But Captain America is a costume, and there are other people who could take it over. He is iconic, and we're continuing the comic books," he added. But he declined to speculate who could step into the hero's 66-year-old boots.
He said the continuing comic series would initially be focused on the reaction of other characters to Captain America's death.
This was similar to the death of Superman in 1993, when the leading superhero of Marvel rival D.C. Comics was killed off after about 55 years -- only to be brought back months later.
Captain America has appeared in about 210 million comics in 75 countries, but currently his title sells up to 80,000 copies a month in the United States, down from about 150,000 in their heyday.
Unlike other comic heroes such as Spider-Man, Superman, Batman and the Fantastic Four, the Captain has yet to win Hollywood fame, though Buckley said there are plans for a Captain America movie.
"He is still popular, but he has not been getting the same attention as Spider-Man and others," said Buckley. "We hope this will make him more popular in the short-term at least."
Captain America's assassination secret comes in the aftermath of a seven-issue mini-series, Marvel's civil war, which divided superheroes as the government ordered them to reveal their true identities and register with authorities.
This caused a major rift and resulted in two super-powered factions, one led by Captain America, who went underground and formed a resistance movement, the other by Iron Man.
In the end, Captain America surrendered to Iron Man's pro-registration forces -- but is shot dead on the steps of New York's Federal Courthouse on his way to face charges.
Gerry Gladston, co-owner of Midtown Comics in Manhattan, said Captain America's assassination -- and the fact it had remained such a secret, even to some Marvel staff -- was "pretty Earth-shattering" and had sent sales soaring already.
"Captain America is still one of the most relevant comic book characters and the one with the most iconic status in the Marvel Universe who is revered by the others," said Gladston.
"I hope they bring him back. I miss him already."