James Sturm was born in New York City. In 1988 he self-published 'Down and Out Dawg', a collection of his college newspaper strips, as well as 'Commix', an anthology that also featured early work by Chris Ware and comedy writer Scott Dikkers. He joined the production team of Art Spiegelman's RAW magazine in 1990. He graduated as a Maser of Fine Artts from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1991. Sturm then settled in Seattle and launched the alternative weekly The Stranger.
During that same year, he published his first comic book through Fantagraphics, 'The Cereal Killings'. This was followed by an ambitious trilogy on American historical fiction, such as 'The Revival' (1996), 'Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight' (1998) and 'The Golem's Mighty Swing' (2001), which was collected as 'James Sturm's America: God, Gold, and Golems' in 2007. While working on his comics, Sturm was also serving as the art director of The Stranger and publisher of his own Bear Bones Press. He additionally became a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia.
As a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, Sturm created the comic 'Return to Normal'. In the comic, Sturm stated that people should "return to normal" and not aim their vengeance to all Arab Americans. The comic was intended for educational purposes. Two years later, Sturm scripted 'Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules' for Marvel Comics. In 2004, Sturm and Michelle Ollie founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.