Holy smoke, Batman! Are you dead?

Fans up in arms as writer consigns Bruce Wayne to 'a fate worse than death'

For almost 70 years, he's seen off every "baddie" fate has thrown at him, from The Joker and Mr Freeze, to Catwoman and The Riddler. But now Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, seems to have finally met his match: a middle-aged comic book writer from Glasgow.

In the final instalment of Batman R.I.P., the latest series chronicling the veteran superhero, the Scottish author Grant Morrison apparently kills Mr Wayne, after allowing him to be ejected from a speeding aeroplane, without his famous cape and mask.

The closing page of Morrison's new comic book, released to a mixture of frenzied anticipation and mounting controversy in the US – and in UK newsagents yesterday – ends with an eerie picture of the outfit fluttering to earth. Wayne is missing, presumed dead.

Rumours of Wayne's demise have been circulating for months, not least because of the title of the new DC Comics series, but reached fever pitch this week when Morrison, 48, told an interviewer that the hero faced "a fate worse than death". He added: "This is the end of Bruce Wayne as Batman. But, like I say, it's so much better than death. People have killed characters in the past but to me, that kind of ends the story. I like to keep the story twisting and turning. So what I am doing is a fate worse than death. Things that no one would expect to happen to these guys at all."

The comments prompted an instant backlash from fans, who flooded the internet with protests. "Do not buy this book," wrote one blogger. "Bruce IS Batman. There has to be a campaign against this." Another disgruntled fan wrote simply, "Thanks for vomiting over my childhood".

Either way, yesterday's apparent end of Wayne's crime-fighting career – at the hands of a crime syndicate called The Black Glove who inject him with heroin and crystal meth – certainly marked the end of an era. The character, a wealthy Gotham City socialite who publicly appears to be a feckless playboy, has been behind Batman's mask since the hero made his first outing in 1939, with his occasional sidekick Robin, in the publication Detective Comics.

He has spawned a popular TV series, and a slew of blockbuster films, including this year's The Dark Knight, which took more than $500m (£325) at the box office, making it the second highest-grossing film on record. And it is tipped for several Oscars, with the late Heath Ledger odds-on to secure the best supporting actor gong at February's awards ceremony, thanks to his performance as The Joker. Co-stars included Christian Bale and Gary Oldman.

But the enduring commercial value of the Batman franchise means that Warner Brothers, who own DC Comics, are unlikely to kill off the superhero altogether. Morrison, a famous figure in science-fiction circles who was employed to plot the superhero's future in 2006, has already announced plans for a new series of Batman comics called The Battle for the Cowl, featuring a "replacement" for Wayne.

That may not satisfy hardcore fans, and spokesmen for DC Comics were refusing to offer on-the-record guidance on the implications of their newly-released comic book's ending. But sources close to the firm indicated that reports of Wayne's death may, in the words of Mark Twain, may have been slightly exaggerated.

"This is certainly the most serious thing that's ever happened to Wayne, far worse, for example, than the incident where he broke his back during the 1990s," one expert said. "But even if readers were actually shown his body, (and remember, they haven't in this case) there will always be potential for a comeback." said one expert.

Morrison has a history of courting controversy, for example, revealing two years ago that Batman has a son, but he is anxious not to upset longstanding fans, the source added. "In comic books, we have something called The Bucky Clause, which means that no character is actually dead forever. I hope fans will look at the circumstances of what Grant Morrison has done to Batman, and read between the lines, and find a reason to hope that he will be back."