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Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, but grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Lee's St. Louis Country Day School classmates predicted in his senior yearbook that he would found his own comic book company. But, initially, Lee seemed resigned to following his father's career in medicine. Lee attended Princeton University and majored in psychology with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. An elective course in Fine Arts reawakened his love for drawing; he graduated in 1986, putting medical school on hold to attempt a career in comic book illustration.

Jim Lee is not related to Stan Lee, Pat Lee, or Jae Lee, three other prominent names in the American comic book industry.

After inking only the cover of Samurai Santa #1 for a small, independent publisher, Lee found success at the North American comics publisher, Marvel Comics, as a penciller. According to a profile publishing in Punisher: War Journal #1 (Nov, 1988), Lee was introduced to editor/writer Carl Potts by Archie Goodwin in mid-1987, and "[w]ithin ten minutes Editor Potts gave Jim an Alpha Flight story to draw. The rest, as they say, is history."[1] His early Marvel work included Alpha Flight, Conan the Barbarian and Punisher War Journal.

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